Sunday, March 29, 2009


I used to think I was good at learning languages. I started taking German in the 8th grade. I kept taking it every year until in high school I progressed out of the sequences and they brought in a woman to teach three of us--Pete, Alyssa and me--the 6th year German course. By the end of that year, I thought I knew German pretty well. That year, I went to Germany with my family. From the hotel room, I ordered towels. The housekeeper responded in English. Apparently, either my knowledge or pronunciation could have used a 7th year.
At Reed College, we had to take a third year language course in our English major. I thought, no big deal. I'll test out of that first year.
Not so much. I do think I got an A in first year. And I studied with my boyfriend who grew up with grandparents who spoke German (who is now also strangely living in Arizona. Thanks FB.) and therefore got A's and B's in second year German. Third year German, I read Perfume, The Clown, The Sleepwalkers, and the Magic Mountain--in translation--but read a few pages of each in the original German.
At the U, to graduate, you had to be proficient in one language or competent in two. I took the German test for proficiency. I translated the strangest passage about bees. I have no idea what that had to do with the title of the piece, which was something like "Disorientation in Adorno's Metaphor." Or maybe that wasn't the title at all, for I did not pass that test.
I high-tailed it to Spanish. I could never remember what aufrichten meant in German. I had a hard time with the verbs that cut themselves in the middle and the prefix is tossed to the end of sentences like: Ich richte meine Mutti auf. That could mean I called my mom up, out or bought her a sweater. "Auf," a preposition, can mean at, to, on, or upon. "Auf" can also be an accusative or dative perposition meaning that the articles, die, der or das, changed depending on how auf is used.
Although I may not understand German, I understand German grammar better than English.
Spanish proved easier because I already understood that sometimes verbs are reflexive, like "me gusta" and that adjectives can come after the noun "the cornflower blue." Again, the words didn't stick that well. Egg and I once tried to help a guy move his car. He spoke only Spanish. I kept (in my version of the story, Erik says this, but I really don't know which of us brought out the heavy cannons of translation skill) saying "Parko el caro." I think that means are parrots expensive here.
Now I'm trying to learn Italian. I have a language tape for my iPod. It's 70 minutes long so I listen to one half when I run one day, the second half the next running day. Over and over. There's fancy music in the background. The Italian woman who teaches me is named Philomena. I understand "mi piaci" is "me gusta" in Italian. I get "I would like," is "vorrei" in Italian and "Ich moechte"(the o should have umlauts but Blogger won't let me umlaut. The e suggsts umlaut) in German.
I had to look up how to spell "vorrei" since I only know the sounds of the words from Philomena. I presume, by the time I get to Italy, I will know how to order a towel in Italian. (Vorrei un asciugamano?) I expect that someone will counter with, "You'd like a towel" just to be sure I'm not asking for a wiry ice cream (gelato asciutto). I do think I know how to order a bottle of wine, red(vino rosso) and some bread (del pane), which is, in the end, all I probably need to know.


Dr Write said...

Ha! I took as many years of Spanish in junior high/high school as possible, four I think. In college, I got bored with grammar but did well with stories (surprising, huh?). Then I quit. Why?
For the exam, I did Spanish. I think the key was to take a literal translation and make it more "poetic" by echoing the alliteration of the original. At least, this is what I did, even though it was a bit of lit crit. In any case, I passed and have not looked back.
I want to use that Rosetta Stone, just cuz it seems cool. What language should I learn?

Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

I did so well in high school Spanish that I placed out of the two additional semesters that English majors were supposed to do at the U of C. But then I didn't use it for several years, leading to the embarrassing situation of flunking the language exam *twice* at Utah before finally passing it -- and the latter, I think only because they kindly gave me an critical text for the translation, so half the words were basically the same as English words.

I have also completely forgotten Polish and Tamil, both of which I was once fluent in. And now I can't figure out whether I was supposed to use 'was' or 'were' in that last sentence, which seems to indicate that my English is steadily eroding too.

Nik said...

Please help me too. Is it were or was. Like "I wish I were there to help" or "I wish I was there." My mother, an English major of the 70's would argue "were." Now I just don't know.

Lisa B. said...

When I had to take the French exam for the language requirement, I had a dream a couple of nights before that I was going to pass it with flying colors. And I did pass it, but with colors not quite so high flying.

Lisa B. said...

I wish I were there to help. It's the subjunctive, although I cannot give you a useful definition of the subjunctive. I just know that it is, and therefore, it is "were."

Nik said...

I believe in the subjunctive. And the conditional. But I live it in German and only dream it in English.
Yes. I think French shall be next. Dr. Write--French? If they have these Rapid Italian tapes in the French I think you'll find it hilarious and delightful

moshe dubman said...

I am a full member of

Their method is just great.

Molly said...

When are you going to Italy? That's the language I studied and I've been to Italy twice. Depending on where you go you'll find plenty of Italians who cannot speak English. It's not like Germany that way. The most valuable phrases I learned were how to ask for directions and understand the directions given to me (Dove e ...?), and how to specify that I only wanted the first course (primo corso soltante), not all six. Oh, also, learning how to ask for ice cubes (posso avere cubo di ghiaccio) is good and water without bubbles (posso avere acqua senza bolle).

The first phrase I learned was "Dove posso trovare un paio di scarpe?" because Alitalia lost my luggage and I needed a pair of shoes.