Tuesday, July 26, 2011


In a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine David Sedaris wrote an article about learning a foreign language. While I normally don’t read his stuff (a bit too raunchy for my taste), I did enjoy reading of the trials and tribulations he experienced in making the jump from English to whatever it was he was at the moment trying to learn – Chinese, French, German, et al.

I have finally reached the point in my life where I don’t think I’m going to make any further effort to transform my two years of Spanish in High School into a passable understanding of that language. In those two years – we’re talking about 1951 to 1953 – we studied vocabulary, we conjugated verbs and we translated Spanish novels. We spoke words with the Castilian “th” sound. The first few sentences we learned to speak were these: “Que es el burro? El burro es un animal. El burro es un animal importante.” I don’t remember where the story went from there, but wherever it went, I ended up those two years with “B”s on my report card and a total inability to either speak or understand Spanish.

From time to time I can pull out from the tiny little part of my brain that stores foreign words an appropriate word of Spanish. Once I even helped a little Hispanic lady at the local Post Office who needed to fill out a form that was written in English. The postal clerk was so rude to her about her inability to speak and read English that I decided I should show her that all Anglos aren’t so mean. I remembered the Spanish words for Name, Address, City, etc. and between the two of us we got the card filled out properly and returned to the clerk. I told the clerk he should be ashamed of himself, and I walked out behind la senora, as if protecting her backside from any more rude comments. But that’s about the maximum good that my two years of Spanish have ever done.
When we moved to Turkey I was determined to learn enough of that language to make myself understood. I sent for a small tape offered by Tom Brosnahan, writer of The Lonely Planet’s “Turkey - Travel Survival Kit” and before I set foot in Istanbul I could already count and say a few pleasantries, name the colors, a few fruits and vegetables, and a modicum of verbs, all in the present tense, of course.

Once we got established, I hired a young bilingual (Turkish-English) woman to help me learn the language. The first lesson was promising: Good day, Yucel Bey. Good day, Cetin Bey. How are you? I am fine, thank you. And you? I’m fine, too. Thanks. Good bye. Ah, I thought, I can do this. But in tackling the second lesson a red flag went up. I was going to learn about school children, clocks, teachers, books, pens and pencils, playgrounds, tests, school athletic events and so forth. It seemed to me that I would be spending a lot of time learning about things that I really didn’t need to bother with.

Before long I set aside my lessons, and although I never stopped studying, I made use of our driver in correcting my pronunciation, in finding an easier way to say something, and ultimately in making sure what I said could be understood by a run-of-the mill Turk. Ahmet Bey was a great help, and it was to his credit that I finally got to the point where I could, within the limits of my Turkish vocabulary, make myself understood. I never got to the point where I could converse with anyone in Turkish. But I could tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go, which corners he should turn at, if he should go faster or slower, and where to let me out. On trips I could tell a hotel clerk that Jerry and I wanted a room with a bathroom, and we wanted it to be clean and have a window. I could ask where we could find a meat, fish, or chicken restaurant. I could check us in and out of the hotel, the restaurant, and the tourist site. I could nicely tell the rug merchant that we did not want to see his rugs. I could tell anyone who wanted to know that we were Americans, that we thought Turkey was a beautiful country, that we lived in Istanbul right now, and that in America we had six children and a bunch of grandchildren.

What I never was able to do was to understand a word that a Turk said to me – if it was more than one syllable long. Their language has a root word that I may have known the meaning of, but then a whole lot of suffixes were attached to it so that I never had a clue as to what was being said or meant. I just couldn’t think fast enough, and wasn’t familiar enough with the language to just “get it.” So I learned to say in Turkish “I speak a little Turkish but I don’t understand it yet.” That always got me out of the jams.

Reading David Sedaris’ funny account of his own verbal trial and tribulations reminded me again of what I went through. I have no compelling desire to be bilingual at this stage in my life. I just don’t think I have the energy left to tackle such a big job. But I know I’m inadvertently picking up a few new Spanish words because of all the billboards in Spanish that abound in this part of Southern California. You too probably know the words – Tecate, Corona, Dos Equis, etc.


Olga said...

I always have regretted not being more diligent about learning another language. but you are right. There comes a time when it just is not going to happen.
I do applaud you for going to a country where you did not know the language.

marciamayo said...

I just came away from a conference on internationalism. While most of it was in English, one of the speakers spoke Spanish and we are given headphones. I came away wishing I'd paid better attention in my foreign language classes.