My roommate my first year in Russia told me that English was an easy language to start speaking and make yourself decently understood but near impossible to master because of all the idioms, nuance, unexpected pronunciations, and multiple ways of saying everything. No matter how long you speak it, you’re always going to encounter something a native speaker says or writes that baffles you. Russian is the opposite. It has a dense grammar with lots of irregularities that tongue ties you for a long, long time after beginning, but once you’ve got it, you just fly into proficiency. Today, I thought I’d focus on a few of the intricacies of English grammar that I’ve come across recently that I think wouldn’t be so obvious to fluent, non-native speakers or to native speakers, for that matter.
I used to speak four foreign languages at a high intermediate level. Now I can still hold my own in Spanish, but that’s about it. I went to a French conversation group a few weeks ago to attempt speaking French for the first time in about three years and was mortified that I could barely even get Je m’appelle Jennifer to come out of my mouth. But the problem wasn’t that I could only speak in English. Words were tumbling out in all sorts of languages in an unstoppable Babelfish short circuit. The word between would only come to mind in Russian. The word very was relegated to German. I haven’t spoken either of those languages in over six years. It was like I was having some kind of stroke.
So, I signed up for my first ever language lesson via Skype. Make that my first real video chat ever. I used Google Hangouts in my last job and I taught online for a few years, but never with video turned on. Mon Dieu! C’est bizarre! This lovely French gal was right there, 18 inches in front of my face, practically in my home even though she lives in Manchester. It was quite uncomfortable at first. Never mind that I was trying to communicate in a foreign language; the whole experience was strangely intimate. I’ve made some small strides in the last few weeks but still, it’s a bit depressing to have spent all that time and money on lessons and yet be reduced to speaking like a four-year-old (who would undoubtedly start speaking fluently sooner than I will). Continue reading →
I never studied Greek, but I meant to. When I was 19, I had a plan. A list of 10 languages and how many years I was going to spend studying and becoming fluent in each to be the ultimate polyglot powerhouse. It was a motley collection of languages from all continents. Norwegian, Swahili, Vietnamese. They were all on the list, as was Greek.
In reality, I took 5 years of Spanish in grade school but only placed into Spanish 102 in college and ended up walking out in the middle of a Spanish class a year later (never to return) because I just couldn’t understand the subjunctive and didn’t see the point. Continue reading →
Near the end of sixth grade, the school herded everyone in that grade into the auditorium. Someone explained to us that next year we would start learning a foreign language. Yes, that is a pathetically late time to start, but that decision was out of my control. We were given two choices – Spanish or French. We already knew these were going to be the options. Chinese was not in vogue in Western New York in 1991 and my school was not large enough to also offer German or Latin, as many of the surrounding schools did. We also already knew that the French teacher was a b***h and we were all scared of her, though I can’t recall a single event or detail that led to this perception. So the choice of Spanish or French wasn’t really a choice. Everyone wanted to be in tiny, perky, friendly Ms. Periera’s class.
If the administrators thought we were going to evenly divide ourselves, they were in for a big surprise when about 130 people moved to the right of the auditorium and 14 moved to the left. Obviously that wasn’t going to work and some poor souls were unpleasantly surprised to see French on their schedules when they showed up to school the following September. I – whose mother was on the Board of Education – was not one them. I was relieved not only because I was terrified of the teacher but of French itself. Even though I hadn’t started learning French, I knew that it had a lot of letters that weren’t spoken (only English is allowed to do that!) and that the letters that were spoken often sounded slurred together and nasally (only English is allowed to do that!). Who wouldn’t choose the blissfully phonetic and clipped (how naïve!) Spanish instead? Continue reading →