Sunday, March 13, 2016

Language barrier

-  How do you say in Russian “I’ll miss you”? - asks my ever smiling round faced Chinese doctor.

-  Буду скучать.

-  Буду скучать. – He repeats carefully, testing the sounds on his tongue and nodding appreciatively.

- It’s like Buddha but with an “U” at the end. – I try to help him.

He enjoys learning short sentences in Russian and now can say about 5 of them – the easiest ones. He thinks this is the best way to learn a foreign language – “in conversation with native speakers”. You have to hand it to him – he has a good memory and a fine ear. Not only he can repeat Russian words well, he really remembers them till my next visit.

I tried to do the same with Chinese phrases. I would repeat them after him, perfecting my pronunciation, but by my next appointment I wouldn’t remember a sound. He does. He practices constantly.

- Russian language has a lot of words with the sound “K”, - he says while sticking needles in me. These needles are the reason why I am here. He is an acupuncturist and I have a chronic pain problem.

- Actually no. You don’t have enough statistic evidence to come to this conclusion, - I don’t mind needles. Yet, the generalizations about a language based on the 5 sentences knowledge – I can’t pass it by. Oh, human nature, you need to find a pattern in everything, don’t you?

All the needles are in place and now he connects them to the electrical wires. Yes, I’ll be electrocuted – mildly – and paradoxically it helps me with pain. It is like rewiring or rebooting your body. Unfortunately, it works only for a while and then you have to rewire it again. Well, computers also get broke.

My doctor is very good with needles. And he obviously doesn’t understand statistics. If you learn 5 sentences in 2 years without any idea about grammar rules, it is not the best way of learning a foreign language. How many years it will take to learn all the sentences that you need to survive? Right, I know, it will never happen.

Yet, he is happy and thinks that he discovered a great new way of learning. He even recommended me to rent Chinese movies with English subtitles and watch them if I want to learn Chinese.

- I’ll miss you too, - I tell him at the end of my visit. In English. I am mean. I don’t want to maintain his illusion that he can speak Russian. Yet, I know that he will stay delusional nevertheless.

I have my little secret about learning a language. After all, I learned English here, when I came to this country, not before. Do you want to know it? It is pretty simple. You will learn a language quickly – and by learning it I mean speaking, listening, writing, and reading – if you are well motivated. MOTIVATION is the main and only condition to learn a language in my opinion. Because it cannot be easy.

Let me explain.

Many times I’ve heard people complaining about not knowing any foreign language for two major reasons:

1. No talent for languages.

I am sorry to disappoint, but there is no such thing as a special gift for languages (actually, over the years I’ve met a couple of people who really enjoyed learning new languages and made it their profession, but such people are rare and exotic species). We all learn at least one language because we need to communicate with other humans; therefore, we are perfectly able to learn more. The problem – it’s too much of a bother.

2. Too little too late.

So many times I’ve heard that people should start learning languages in kindergarten, with songs, poems, and games. The earlier you start, the easier it goes. Again, I am sorry to disappoint. I’ve brought up two bilingual children and I can tell you from experience that it is as hard when you are a kid as it is when you are an adult. With one difference – you grow up, you forget your struggles, and keep an extra-language in your possession.

Actually (again, I found it from the experience and literature), adults learn languages much faster than kids, which makes sense. They already know one language, right? They know how it works and all the patterns. It takes less time for them to figure out how the same notions are expressed in a new language. The only thing that adults cannot do – they cannot avoid having an accent (again, there are few who can but this IS a special skill). If you learn a language after the age of 8, your accent will stay with you forever no matter how often you use the language. Something happens to our hearing ability and we stop distinguishing all the sounds, especially the unknown ones. That is why for me words like “bitch” and “beach”, “sheet” and “shit”, or “sheep” and “ship” are a big problem and sometimes a source of embarrassment, because they sound the same to my Russian ear. But I digress.

Today I wanted to talk about MOTIVATION. Well, to learn a new language you have to be strongly motivated.

First, you need a serious natural disaster. In my case it was a blizzard. A big one. When snow is 10” deep, your dog cannot go outside and you have to dig a tunnel in the snow for it. And for several days it is dangerous to drive. And no one is driving. That sort of natural disaster, the one that regularly happens in Pennsylvania, you know, it is called “winter”.

Second, you need to rent an old house with an even older (basically, antique) heater and an insensible representative of the rental agency.

Third, at some point during the above mentioned blizzard, the heater gets broken.

Now, imagine yourself shivering in a frozen house, with two kids who almost instantly became sick (kids do it all the time, at least mine did), with a dog who complains about the walking and bathroom arrangements, with a husband who has to work somehow, and, to top it all, with unexpected house guests who came all the way from Russia for a vacation.

I’d rather not go in my futile attempts to persuade our rental agent that we needed somebody to come and fix the heater pronto. Roads were covered with snow anyway, and no one could drive. Yet, after several days of waiting a crew consisting of two tired melancholy looking men came to take care of our heater.

I spent half a day before their arrival preparing my speech. I tried to impress on them the urgency of the task pointing at my dog and mentioning my children. Soon enough they were leaving and I didn’t hear any sounds from the heater. It was as broken as before they came to look at it (because, basically, that was all what they did – just looked at it). So, naturally, I tried to stop them and get them to do the job.

“Take it easy, ma’am”, - said one of them, and they left with a smile on their tired faces.

I went to look up “take it easy” in the dictionary – will never forget that expression!

Eventually, my husband fixed the heater himself and the snow melted. And I was learning English like a woman possessed. I was memorizing irregular verbs while doing dishes, listening to the books while walking the dog, trying to speak to anyone who would listen to me (sadly, for a while, I could rely only on Jehovah Witnesses wandering in our neighborhood, nobody else would have a conversation with me). I watched TV as often as I could, especially all the commercials – trying to repeat words and imitate intonation. I drove telemarketers crazy because I would answer to them and then ask to repeat what they said 6 to 8 times.

By the next time a handyman came to our house (it was a different house with no unresponsive rental agent) I graduated from a special school for foreigners at St. Joseph University.

After I said my first sentence (something along the lines of “How are you?”) the handyman asked me if I spoke any English. “Yes”, - I said with conviction, - “I’ve got a certificate of proficiency to prove it. Do you want to see it?” He didn’t.

Many times I’ve heard from people that they would love to learn Italian/French/Japanese just for the beauty of it (“Oh, it sounds so beautiful! I wish I could speak it!”), and it is painful for me to stay quiet and not to say anything back. Without MOTIVATION (yes, a big one, all capital letters!) you absolutely cannot learn a foreign language no matter how beautiful you find it. You’ll be telling everyone that you lack this special talent – for tongues, or that you started too late and you lost your natural ability to learn a language that you certainly had as a child.

As a matter of fact you just lack motivation. It is that simple, my friends!

In the knitting news there is no news. From the yarn that I brought to Florida there are only 2 bags left.
 I picked one wishing to make a pattern from Phildar magazine. Here how it went. I don’t know why, maybe my aversion got transferred from Phildar in general onto its patterns through osmosis. Anyway, that yarn didn’t want to become this sweater.
And I unraveled everything that I had knitted and started all over with a different pattern but the same final result – I ripped it off. Currently, I am on my third and, hopefully, last try (fingers crossed!). I’ll let you know how it goes.

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