Monday, August 04, 2008


by Gina Sestak

When I was a little girl, I aspired to be a translator at the United Nations. I imagined myself fluent in French, Russian, Chinese, whatever the situation called for. My father, after all, despite having only a 9th-grade education, could manage to communicate in many languages. He had grown up speaking Hungarian at home, Slovak in the neighborhood, and English in school. An uncle by marriage, Sicilian by birth, had emigrated to the US in childhood and gotten a job where he came in contact with Polish co-workers. He and my father would throw phrases at one another in at least a dozen languages, each trying (without success) to stump the other. Alas, I seem to have missed out on that portion of my father's genes. I have absolutely no facility for languages.

That isn't for lack of trying. I took years of Latin and French in high school and, although my comprehension of written French was good enough to exempt Pitt's foreign language requirement, I took one semester each of Spanish and Russian, not to mention a course in French literature. I can't speak any of those languages. I tried do-it-yourself courses to teach myself Greek and Danish in preparation for trips to Greece and Denmark. No luck. For the past several months I've been taking a French class, hoping I'd be able to communicate a little during my recent trip to Montreal for a conference on dreams. Luckily, I ran into another attendee who spoke French and handled the conversation with our Haitian taxi driver.

Still, I decided to attend at least one lecture in French, just to see whether or not I could follow it. I chose Odyssee d'Homere et voyage interieur. The catalogue described it as: Au cours de cet atelier, nous ferons l'experience d'une approche dans laquelle nos propres reves, les mythes et les evenements de notre quotidien creent un fascinant jeu de miroirs qui nous revelent a nous-memes. L'Odysee d'Homere sera utilisee comme metaphore de la quete spirituelle et nous guidera dans notre proper voyage de retour a Soi. I took this to mean that the quest for
self-understanding would be explored through the familiar tale of the Odyssey. That was, in fact, what the lecture was about. I think. I really was able to follow some of the written materials. I recognized the PowerPoint map as being the Eastern Mediterranean. The lecture itself, though -- I only caught the occasional word. My internal translation ran something like:

Ullyses and his companions (French French French French French) the sea (French French French) wind (French French French French French French French French) Ithaca.

I sat in the back of the room and, whenever the lecturer would look up, inviting audience participation, I would hide behind the person in front of me. Still, I'm glad I went.

What about you? Do you speak and/or understand any languages other than English?


Tory said...

I took French for 4 years in high school but I couldn't translate the description of the lecture you included in your blog. I got most of the small words, it's the nouns I don't know.

The last couple of weeks I've been listening to Cajun music. I wish they had the words (most in French) in the CD notes. I think if I could read them, I could understand what they're saying.

Tory said...

P.S. I considered taking a class in parseltongue, but decided it was too much work. :-)

Joyce said...

I had French in high school, but that was way too long ago to remember much of it. I was able to understand a little bit of the description, though. I'd like to think that if I took a class, most of it would come back.

Annette said...

About the only word I know in French is armoire. Oh! And Perrier.

I WISH I understood French. It's a beautiful language and I love listening to it. I just don't understand a word of it.

I took a couple years of Spanish, but mostly I only understand the basics. Hola. Como esta? Estoy bien. But after greeting someone and determining their well being, I'm stuck.

mike said...

Gina--What a great mix of languages to grow up with. The only other language, if you want to call it that, that I ever heard as a kid was Pennsylvania Dutch! Then, I lucked out in my Vietnam-era military service, studying Russian for 10 months at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA. Six hours a day (immersion training, no English allowed) of classroom instruction and (during the first month) 2 hours at night learning the Cyrillic week six or seven, I was dreaming in Russian. Very weird. This being the military, I ended up in West Germany, where I never used my Russian, but did acquire some facility with German. I've forgotten more than I remember of both (and French and Latin too)...drop me inside Germany or Russia and I'd probably starve without the help of English-speaking natives! I'm thinking now of taking up Spanish, the one language I should've studied in school.

j renee stuart said...

I was a Russian linguist when I was in the army. I don't have call to use the language much anymore, but Attila-the-Husband was also a linguist, so we practice on each other. we also speak a little German which we picked up from our time in Europe.
I was delighted to discover that Working Stiff's own Mike Crawmer, who I met at last year's PennWriters conference, had also been a Russian linguist and had been to DLI (Defense Language Institute) in California a few years before me. "Zdrastvwietye, Mike. Kak vwie pazhiviaetye ?"

j renee stuart said...

oops. I posted before I read Mike's comment. It's true about the immersion training. After a few weeks, I was not only dreaming in Russian, but would wake up, speaking it in my sleep. Actually, my Russian grammer was better when I was asleep, or had a few beers.
Mike dear, you wouldn't starve. You and I spoke enough po-russkie at the conference. It's amazing how some training is so ingrained that it just comes back to you with a little practice. In fact, I'm pretty sure I could still field strip an M-16. "Chtoe vwie dumaetye" (what do you think), Mike?

Joyce said...

Hi, Jody! Nice to see you here again!

j renee stuart said...

Hi Joyce. Thanks, it's good to be back. Any chance of a Gettysburg trip sometime soon? It could be research for your next book.

JennieB said...

I had the benefit of growing up in Europe, so I'm pretty well multi-lingual. My native language is Norwegian, and I can communicate in, read and write Swedish and Danish, as well, because they're similar. I took English, German and French in school, enough to be fluent in English and German and pretty good in French. Because I haven't used anything but English and Norwegian for years, my German and French are both a little rusty, although I don't doubt they'd come back with a little effort. And then I've picked up a few words of Spanish lately, because it's becoming so widely used around here.

I think a big part of learning languages has to do with needing to learn vs. merely wanting to, since, when you're from a small country with a specialized language of its own, you can't talk to anyone unless you learn their language. For someone who speaks English, English is too easy to fall back on because everyone (pretty much) understands it. These days, I find myself speaking in English before I try German and French, just because it's easier.

Yeah, parseltongue sounds fun!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Hey Gina,

I spent a month in Mexico and picked up the necessities in South American Spanish. Not too, too hard. I easily picked up, Dos cervezas frías, Por favor. and Donde está el baño.

Working for a beer company, those are the first words I learn in any language.

That was easy compared to Chinese. I know a little Mandarin and a few words in Cantonese. It's a very lyrical language (4 tones in Mandarin, 8 in Canton). So my prime example at how difficult the language is, say the word "ma" wrong and you can call someone's mother, a horse.

I can't read Chinese, a pictograph based language, so I try to use pin-yin, a non-phonetic alphabet representation of the language.

Their sentence structure can be quite different too. So even if you get the words right, you may not be understood.

On a recent trip, a little boy called out to me. "Gwai lou"

I smiled and said, "Wo bu shi gwai lou, wo shi lao wai. Wo Zhongwen mingzi jiao, Bai Li Wei."

He called out a bit of a racial slur, "ghost man." I relpied, I'm not a ghost man, I am a foreigner. My Chinese name is Bai Li Wei."

I got a kick out of the look on his face and his mother, shook my hand and said, "xie xie."

I love the communication with other cultures.

Gina said...

Ssssssso, no parseltongue, Tory?

I think one of my biggest problems is that I forget which foreign words go with what language. You know, like "Como esta vous?" "Je vais a la casa blanca." "El caballo mange trop bien."

So, Wilfred, you know the words for "beer" in many languages. Do you also know the word for "bathroom?" ;-)

In addition to my lousy Spanish, I found it difficult in Mexico to get used to the use of "$" to mean peso. The first time I went to Mexico, I forgot to bring sunglasses and stopped into a little shop to buy some. The cheapest pair was marked $130! I had just about resigned myself to doing without when I realized that the price was 130 pesos -- the equivalent of about 12 US dollars at that time.

mike said...

Jody--Khorosho, spasibo! (Boy, haven't transliterated in ages. Tain't easy!) We did have a delightful talk, didn't we? I don't know about field stripping an M-16, but I sure could order up a tank po-russki!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Gina, Both words go hand in hand. Can't learn one phrase without the other.

In China, if a lao wei (foreigner) stands up in a restaurant, somebody will immediately show you to a restroom. Why else would an American get out of their chair?

lisa curry said...

Gina, I took French in high school and German in college, but never had occasion to use either of them, so I remember very little of either. I always did read both of them better than I could speak them, but that's not saying much. When Glen was in Germany, I was all proud of myself just for being able to say, "Guten tag, zimmer hoonderd-sieben, bitte," to the non-English-speaking lady at the front desk to ask for his room when I called. But meanwhile, Glen had to tell me how to say the "room 107" part, because the only part I knew on my own was the "hello" and "please." :-)

nancy said...

I blame Caesar and all those auxiliaries he was throwing around Europe. I studied 2 years of Latin in Jr high and every did master French in high school. But I can figure out nearly any word in English as long as I can use the Latin roots!

Great blog, Gina!