Talking Up a Storm

Jess mentioned to me that she was impressed I was getting by with all the different languages, so I’ll do a little detour about how that works. Languages aren’t my gift (as they are Nick’s) but memory is – in high school I’d spend the time between 1st and 2nd period memorizing a vocabulary list and grammatical rules for a spanish test and this is basically what’s got me by. In Scandinavia I didn’t even bother learning anything beyond “Thanks,” “Hello,” and basic street names: everyone speaks English quite well in those northern parts. I learned a touch more Finnish from those two little kids on the bus, listened to a lesson on Swedish Pontus recommended me and picked up some Norwegian from staying in Edane, but aside from that it was basically all English, all the time.

Austria proved simple, too, with no real need to interact with people aside from Geoffrey I just picked up basic words from street signs. It’s also close enough to English and the Scandinavian tongues that I could make things up. Actually, that’s my number one recommendation for all would be travelers – when in doubt, use your knowledge of etymologies, general sounds/pronunciations and instinct and make it up. You’ll be understood about a quarter of the time, which isnt bad. The little German I learned consisted of numbers and self descriptive words like kunst (art) prompted by curious passersby.

I was only briefly in the Czech Republic, where my time studying East European history helped me be less intimidated by all the diacritical marks. With Mates giving me a couple words here and there and positing words from Russian all was well. Only when I went to Poland did my language adventure really begin. Here I was at a distinct advantage from the year of Russian I took four years ago. Polish is actually quite different from Russian, especially in all the basic words, the pronounciation, etc, but close enough that the more technical words could be gleaned from a slavicization of English words. The morning I jumped on the bus for Wrocław I watched two youtube videos on Polish basics, wrote down the words and let them sink while I traveled – in Lichkov my Czech/Polish/Russian hybrid was intelligible enough to get directions.

I must note that in addition to memory and a willingness to make things up, an important skill for traveling so quickly is the skill of forgetting. That is – I had to quickly forget my Czech and Russian basics in favor of Polish, and also the Scandinavian and German I’d picked up. Intersections like the Scandinavian “Tak/Takk/Tack” for thank you and the Polish “Tak” for yes otherwise become rather confusing. I’m really good at forgetting things and this is probably the reason why I suck at languages. But for these purposes it worked.

My first Polish host, Tomek, wasn’t terribly strong with his English so we I learned Polish equivalents to basic words by necessity and context in conversation with him. My American host in Kraków, Casey, was an English teacher and keen on Polish. He was impressed at my vocabulary retention and therefore cheerily informed me of the Polish words for basically everything lying around: beets are buraki, voiced and unvoiced consonants do different things to the pronounciations of the multiple consonantal letters like cz, sz or rz (which all have soft counterparts and multiple ways to write), and so on. Getting lost in Kraków trying to find Kris’ place also accelerated my learning curve as when I asked passersby, “Czy mowisz po angielska?” and recieved a “Nie” I still needed directions. Casey insists my Mandarin helps me with the hard consonantal Polish. Perhaps that’s an osmosis thing because my Mandarin is truly poor.

Gosia and her family delighted in my attempts at Polish and thereby encouraged more. I particularly remember one happy moment in her kitchen where she taught me the word for lemon (cytryna) and had me repeat it till correct as she held one up and asked me “Co to est?” She also undid the mental setback I faced with a bus driver who didn’t understand my request by assuring me I pronounced everything well. And so by Poznań I interacted with most people besides my hosts in Polish.

I hadn’t time to copy any words in Bulgarian before I left but happily the language is almost exactly a hybrid of Croatian/Serbian and Russian – Croatian grammar with a Russian twist. My year of Russian helped me immensely with the cyrillic (everything in cyrillic and alternately in cursive or print – a nightmare if you’re not expecting it). Most conveniently Bulgarian’s lost it’s case endings so I could confidently speak without fear of mucking those up. Upon landing I learnt a few words from the girl at the exchange counter and the first night I copied a set of basic words from the lonely planet Sheena was using. This, plus Russian and making stuff up was more than adequate to enquire about bus tickets to Edirne (there are none), nearby conveniences and purchasing of groceries.

Turkey has been the real challenge – the language isn’t similar to any I’ve studied – the closest sound is the Bollywood films I used to watch, but as I didn’t pick up much past “pyar” and “zindigi” and things that doesn’t help me much. I copied about half a page of basics from Graeme’s Lonely Planet but was still entirely overwhelmed upon arriving in Kırklareli and then Edirne – no one speaks any English. So I learned fast. Hand gestures, nods, etc. Merchants and hawkers repeating their entreaties as I passed or following after me also helped. Then one night at the Hotel Anil (no English) the nightshift worker taught me a few useful phrases with hand gestures – like “I am going to…” and the following night Himmet helped me further. His list the following day was a godsend.

Of course the best way to learn a language is to use it instantly. I’d learn a word/phrase/sentence and that same day determine to use it at least twice. After that it’s in your brain and you’re set. After a few words (say the numbers) you understand spelling and pronounciation or at least can extrapolate. A critical mass of perhaps of perhaps fifty words and then you start understanding grammar and logic in the language. Polish with its cases, Turkish with its nested conditionals in the verbs, etc. With the friend of my second Istanbul host, Bülent I learned many more words and used them the following day.

As for other languages, throughout my journeys I’ve used Spanish a surprising amount, as well as Chinese (both dialects) and French. I think I’ve used Spanish in every country and Chinese in most. French I’ve heard and used to listen in to tour groups or read old signs – of course I can’t speak much but enough to make myself understood (to the Moroccan, for instance). Arabic will probably destroy my overburdened brain, so I’m looking forward to the mental relaxation of returning to America.

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