Wouldn’t it be great if all everyone needed to know in order to communicate was music? A couple of ♮, a handful of ♭, and to throw off your enemies, # instead of ♯. None of that “عشب,” “泥,” “հիմար,” or “horse” rubbish. Something universal, you know, like evolution.
One side of me, the side that spent nearly an hour flummoxed trying to travel in a Georgian mashrutka, might be thankful. Another, second side says no thanks, a language that would make it way too simple around the world in taking the fun out of menu ordering. Not that they have a say in the matter. Moreover, when you’re talking loudly with your friend on the bus, everyone would be able to understand your idle chatter. Using Indonesian in New York, Spanish in Cairo or English at Miami International Airport? Safe bets, no more. Anyway, let’s go ahead and focus on my second side …
One of my favorite activities is learning languages. Any of them will do, but I have some usual suspects. So, when you’re a kid, or a teen in school, or someone who has burned a bridge long before crossing it, and you ask someone how to say something in another language, what’s that something apt to be? A term of endearment? Not unless you’re going to Bangkok. The name of a flower? Uh, not bloody likely.
What about a curse word? That’s the ticket. When I was younger, I know those were a priority. Why? I didn’t even watch many movies growing up, so those aren’t an excuse. Was it to sound cool? Good thing I didn’t mention any of my new vocabulary to immigration officers when I was nine.
These days, I know slightly better than that. For every insult that you add to your lexicon, try putting to good use a “thank you,” “it was a pleasure” or a “don’t cars have brakes in this country?” This is where the topic for this post comes in- What were the first five words you remember learning in a language?:
I wish I knew! As it is my native tongue, it’s anyone’s guess. In fact, part of why I’m writing this entry is to know what non-native English speakers first English words happened to be. What I can say is that a lot of my Chinese middle school students had curses and slang on their wish lists. Some of this too.
I started studying a second language in middle school, which is way too late in my book. It was never one that I got into, possibly because the classes progressed very slowly. It’s been twelve years since I’ve had a Spanish class, and much longer that I’ve actually learned anything from a Spanish class. Unsurprisingly, my introduction to Spanish included the harmless uno-diez 1-10, perro dog and gracias thank you. Then, someone played a couple of Molotov songs, and it all went downhill.
Oddly enough, here’s where things get tricky. I took a couple of years of Japanese in college, but those also moved at a painfully slow pace. However, I had spent a month in Kanazawa, Japan with a Japanese host family and visited the country again for a holiday, so I came to the first class armed with…mostly “impractical for beginners” words. Here’s why: while with the host family, I had no prior Japanese knowledge, so one day, I asked one of the children to point at objects in the household to tell me how to say them. Want to know what stuck? In addition to the already well-known さようなら sayounara good-bye and おはよう ohayou good morning, ミルク miruku milk, カレンダー karendaa calendar and とうもろこし toumorokoshi corn, which suffice it to say, can also be called コーン kōn corn. If I was operating a supermarket, I’d be in good shape.
An unofficial college newspaper printed an ad about teaching English in Shenzhen, China. So I sipped the Kool-Aid. Fine, click here if that link wasn’t good enough. Our training took place in Beijing a month before setting out to Shenzhen, and it was in the Chinese capital that I had my first Chinese course. Though, I wasn’t as interested in speaking it as I was being able to read it, seeing as a restaurant is unlikely to serve me a plate of stir-fried mother even after pointing to the wrong dish. Right? In any event, the first Chinese that I ever learned- 你好 nǐhǎo how are you? and 谢谢 xièxie thanks, probably from the movie “Big Bird in China“- was from a time long, long ago. Next came 核桃 hétao walnut and 牛奶
niúnǎi milk, for when I discovered walnut milk in Beijing. My first Shenzhen words were 1-8, since every morning at my school there would be student exercises played over a loudspeaker repeating those numbers. Plenty of Chinese, Cantonese and Chaozhou curses were gleaned in the first couple of weeks teaching, for curses were unfortunately, the only English to which most of my pupils could relate.
It came to be that I did most of my language study for every language listed through listening to or talking with people on the street, not in a classroom. The Indonesian that I picked up is 100% from spontaneous conversations or having a friend get me a fork or third serving of a meal. I am certain that I tried to nail down 1-10 on my first visit in 2005, yet only satu one, stuck. At that time, when I’d order sate satay, I never knew how many skewers came in a set, so I’d say “satu satu satu satu” etc. How embarrassing. No matter, for I could thank the street vendor (for ripping me off). Terima kasih! What’s the reply? Sama sama same same. I wasn’t trying to rip him off, so how is it same same? Ahh…Fast forward to my job in Jakarta three years later, and I eventually get to learn lima five (remembered as Peru’s capital), nasi goreng fried rice and ojek motorcycle taxis. Banjir is flood, gila is crazy and kamu gila is you’re crazy. Great bosses, let me tell you.
Now that we know more about my linguistic background, what can you tell us about yours?
My first words in Chinese were practical. For speaking, it was a way to get rid of aggressive souvenir-sellers at the Great Wall (“bu yao!” I don’t want to buy anything!).
For reading, it was navigating my way through our apartment building and the large shops in Dalian by reading the characters on signs, lift buttons and doors for up, down, entrance and exit.
You learn quickly when you need to find the way home!
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