Thursday, July 29, 2010

Second Languages

A fellow immigrant here, unable to find employment in his field (engineering) locally, has asked me to teach him English so that he can expand his search elsewhere, in some of the English-speaking provinces. It has been some time since I've done language exchanges (English conversation for practice in French). Usually the respective level of competence in the "other" language was pretty much equal: somewhere in the middle-Intermediate range. This time, however, my student knows very little English and does what I do sometimes when I get stuck and can't find the appropriate word or remember the correct verb ending: i.e., revert to using the former known, familiar language.

This is detrimental to progress in the new language, and a very difficult habit to break. At the university here, when you take a French immersion course, you are not permitted to not-speak French. (I'm told for every non-French word you utter, you must fork over 25 cents. At least that is what a former student told me several years ago. Whether or not that's still true, I don't know, but it seems a compelling reason to try harder. (It could also be a good self-imposed incentive, not just for self control but to increase one's savings! Ten unguarded relapses could net you enough for a coffee and a croissant, au moins. :)

My student is a French-speaking Berber from Algeria. French is his second language and his French is vastly superior to mine. The accent and some words are different from the French spoken here (Quebeçois). (I find it easier, in general, to understand French speakers from Belgium, Paris, the Sudan or even Haiti than French-Canadians. Even after some years here, my own spoken French comes out sounding more "international" than local, with a slight accent not always immediately identifiable as Anglo-based. Strange.)

Accent acquisition is a curious phenomenon. For example, in Boston they swallow the "r" in some words and add an extra "r" on the end in others ("square" becomes "squay-uh", "yard becomes "yahd", "Barb" becomes "Bob" and "pizza" becomes "pizzer", etc.). Odd though that neither I, nor my children--who were born and raised there--ever acquired the accent.

Here's how native Bay-staters pronounce the names of certain of their towns and cities (in case you ever go there):

Peabody ("PEE-Bitty")
Medford ("MEHfid")
Gloucester ("GLOSS-tah")
Woburn ("WOO-bin")
Worcester ("WOOSE-tah")

Soft drinks are not called sodas in Boston; they're "tonics". What is a "hoagie" (submarine sandwich) in Pennsylvania is called a "grinder" in Boston. A "regular" coffee in one state might refer to plain black coffee; in another, it means with milk and sugar. Go figure. I add this last point because a former Pennsylvania colleague came back from a trip to Boston once complaining that "they don't know what a regular coffee means "out there"!! ("Out there", as in "Not-here" land, i.e.) Another friend's annoyingly repetitious but relevant saying immediately came to mind: "Never assume anything."

Sometimes how a person pronounces a single word can tell you where they're from. (For Boston, the word "third" usually nails it for me, ha ha; for Pittsburgh, it's the words "no" and "down". For Philly and Central Pennsylvania, a nasal tone; for Vermont, indescribable but immediately recognizable. I used to be able to differentiate between a Ukrainian speaking English from a Moscow native speaking English though I cannot myself speak either Russian or Ukrainian.

Sound threads weaving past that grab the attention, unconsciously, to later surface as recognition... or something like that. One could do that with observations of physical gestures as well, how one expresses (or doesn't express) a thing ... fascinating. What we absorb and unconsciously imitate in our respective cultures, what we alter or suppress or enhance to become what we already are, but more (or less) so. How we are all different, and yet the same...

Suppose you want to learn another language and don't have access to or cannot afford language classes or a private tutor. This is a good little starting point, for an interactive, sound-integrated introduction to English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Hindi or Vienamese, with titles in Polish, Greek, Turkish and Indonesian, etc. It might be interesting to at least learn numbers and colors and salutations in these respective tongues. You never know, it might come in handy some day. This is the easy part, it seems to me. It's the darn grammar that takes working on. And the idioms! And of course, practice.

I have a book somewhere in my library upstairs (in need of reorganization after some shuffling and switching of bookcases) that gives words in 26 languages. It's fascinating to see the similarities and differences among linguistic families. I sometimes read the dictionary as one might begin to read a novel. The words have stories, the descriptions conjure up imaginary others. One doesn't normally admit to this because, well, you get that Look. I once saw a video of the actor Richard Burton reading a telephone book; he made it "sound like Shakespeare."

Anyway, my student has invited me to learn how to make Algerian cuisine (his wife will show me) and in the meantime has sent me some recipes, in Arabic. Which I can't read, of course, but can follow the pictures.

Ah, language. Visual, spoken, unuttered. You would need two lifetimes to explore even the surface of them! Dabblers and masters, and how to graduate from the former to the latter: the apprentice's dream.

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