Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Look at Languages

This is an article I wrote for the newsletter of the company that I teach English for. I wanted to call it "A Cunning Linguist Looks at Languages," but figured that was a little too risqué. Instead, simply "A Look at Languages"

“And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.”
Genesis 11.6-7 (The Tower of Babel)

Perhaps one of the best parts of being a global nomad is the opportunity to come in contact with a multitude of different languages. In my studies and travels, I have managed to learn four languages, of which I am able to speak in varying degrees. Beyond English, I am able to converse in Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and Czech, as well as a smattering of words and vulgarities in a variety of tongues.

Yet, I wouldn’t consider myself gifted in the art of linguistics; what has made me a good linguist is the lack of fear of making a fool of myself when trying to learn a new language. If I received a peso for each time I utterly made a fool of myself while trying to speak another language, I could easily afford to travel around the world many times over.

Recently, I was in Rosario, and met a group of Israelis who spoke no Spanish. Since I spoke Spanish and Hebrew, they decided I would be the perfect translator for all the girls they wanted to pick-up, who spoke only Spanish (Castillano, excuse me). I spent the evening trying to translate from Hebrew to Spanish, and vice-versa. Needless to say, it all became a mess. Amid my linguistic confusion, I ended up speaking Hebrew to the Argentines and Spanish to the Israelis.

As I have learned more languages, I have come to appreciate that letters have far different uses in different languages. Overtime, I have come to value the funny idiosyncrasies that letters can posses. While a “Y” in Argentine Spanish might sound like a “J,” in Czech, a “J” is pronounced like a “Y.” Meanwhile, the letter “X” varies from a “sh” sound in Chinese, to tongue click in Southern Africa when written “X!” The “R” gets trilled in Arabic and Spanish, rolled into a “gh” in French or practically swallowed in Hebrew; or there is the Czech version of an “Ř,” which is pronounced with a tongue roll- like the “ers” of Persian. A “C” that is lisped in Spain, takes on new form as it is pronounced as a “ts” in the Czech Republic. And then there is the fun of the guttural utterances that punctuate Hebrew and Arabic; nothing is more fun than sounding like you are about to hack up a lung while trying to make yourself understood.

The world of linguistic differences has literally left me lost. There are letters that are simply not pronounced, such as “Q” in Egypt. When I was in Cairo, and invariable lost while searching for the street “Qaseer al-Qainey,” people directed me every which way, even when in reality I was standing directly on “Aseer al-Ainey.”

Meanwhile, tonal Asian languages pose even more problems. Once I found myself waiting at a bus stop, outside of the city of Datong, a place about 6 hours east of Beijing. I was trying to catch a bus back into the city, and as one began to approach, I pointed to it and asked the man next to me “Datong?” He gave me a puzzled look that signified he didn’t understand. I tried a second time, “Dah-tong.” Still nothing. I tried a third and fourth time, with different tones, “Dah-TONG,” and “DAH-tong,” but was met with the same blank glare. Finally, in what sounded to me like the most exaggerated Chinese accent I could come up with, I pointed to the bus and asked, “DAAAAHHHH-TONGGGG?” “Oh, DAAAHHHH-TONGGG,” he said as he nodded his head in agreement. He then smiled and replied, “Why didn’t you say so?”

I won’t even broach the subject of the various nods, head-bobbles and hand signs that signify vastly different and often opposite things in different cultures.

Yet, what I have found to be a universal truth is that people deeply appreciate even the feeblest attempts at trying to speak their respective languages. In at least attempting, you are demonstrating your respect for their language, culture and heritage. While poorly accented words or outright mistakes might be greeted with a few chuckles, in reality it helps demonstrate the shared humanity that we all possess.

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