Sunday, 5 July 2009

Do You Kankokugo Biliyor Musunuz?

“Apricot!” my youngest daughter bellows, a note of challenge in her voice. I cringe and gulp, but I’m not going to stop her from teaching me Turkish. She’s like a one-person language boot camp and I need her.

“Ka—” I stutter, frowning. “Kai—”

“Jeez!” my daughter hisses, rolling her eyes. “I don’t get why you can’t learn apricot!”

Neither can I, really. I’ve managed numbers up through 100, including some subtraction, addition and multiplication. I can say hello, please, thank you, bon appétit, good morning, and gezundheit. I know the words for the rooms of the house, most of my vegetables, and loads of fruit, including watermelon, apple, orange, peach – even persimmon. But not, for some reason, apricot.

“Try it again!” my daughter encourages. I prop my legs up against the dashboard and try again. “Kay—” All of a sudden, I know the next syllable and I almost choke in my triumphance “—Kayuh—”

My daughter leans forward, her arms around her legs. “Yes! Go on! Kayuh-what?”

I freeze, my hand over my mouth. Damn it, it's gone!


She praised me for my skill with numbers earlier and flattered me for my pronunciation of the lyrics to the national anthem, but I appear to have run out of steam. “My brain isn’t as flexible as yours,” I whine. “Anyway, this is weird – learning Turkish in a parking lot in Scotland.”

“You’ve got to learn it sometime,” my daughter rejoins, but even as she says this, it strikes me that this isn’t weird at all, it’s the way I’ve done it all my life.

Most of the major language breakthroughs I’ve had have been in unlikely places, with unlikely people. I developed fluency in Japanese by speaking it with Chinese and Brazilians. We all studied together, and when we took the train home, we’d have short conversations in our broken Japanese. Our level was still so elementary that we exhausted the patience of native or more fluent speakers, but weirdly enough, we generally managed to amuse and entertain each other. I studied Japanese with a woman from New Zealand and an American man too, but we could never have had the same crazy conversations I was able to enjoy with my Brazilian and Chinese pals. One of the Brazilians could never remember the difference between yasui ‘easy’ and yasai ‘vegetable’. I can remember laughing myself silly over this on a train from Shinagawa to Yokohama, while the Japanese around us stared as though we were crazy.

Even though I learned how to read Japanese in the States and Japan, it wasn’t until I was living in Amsterdam that I really developed fluency. As a student bumming around Europe, I found a job washing dishes in a Japanese restaurant right in the heart of Amsterdam. The manager kindly allowed me to live there, in the attic room where the waitresses changed into their kimono. Libraries in the Netherlands cost money to join and most of the books are, naturally, in Dutch. Dishwashers don’t make a lot of money anywhere, so I had a real problem during my time off when I’d finished the few paperbacks I had with me. I began to read the Japanese comic books and graphic novels left there by the waiters and the odd customer. I had my Shogakukan Japanese-English dictionary with me and I would spend my days in Amsterdam gripped by some Japanese murder mystery, feverishly consulting my dictionary for words whose meanings I couldn’t manage to guess. To this day I can still remember specific plots and characters.

A few years later, I spent almost a month traveling around Korea, relying on Japanese to communicate. Due to Japan’s past colonial history in Korea, many older Koreans still speak Japanese fluently. I felt awful doing this: Japanese rule in Korea was harsh and cruel and I was always nervous about stirring up unpleasant memories. One kindly old man shook his head as he directed me to the post office. “Never in my life did I imagine that I would one day be conversing in Japanese with a young American lady,” he murmured. I heard more about World War Two than I wanted to, but what I learned has stuck with me. And I know that I was greatly privileged to learn about history from the people who lived it.

In Japan, I converted my pitiful schoolgirl French into limited fluency by using it with my husband to talk about things we didn’t want our kids to understand. I’m awful at French, but I’d be even worse if it weren’t for being forced to crank out fractured sentences like Ou sont les galletes? and J’ai achete beaucoup de chocolate, c’est sous le bunk-bed des enfants.

Our kids do this too, come to think of it. This past year, when all three of them should have been learning Turkish, our girls have been feverishly absorbing Korean home dramas and movies. This has led to hours of Korean language study. My girls feel a little disgusted that I managed four trips to Korea and have to show for it only a handful of phrases in Korean. They are determined to make up for my deficit. They can sing whole songs in Korean. I get home from work to hear them discussing the writing system, and exchanging words and phrases in Korean.

“Which one is go in peace again?” one of them hisses to the other. “And which one is stay in peace?”

So what if they should have been learning Turkish? There’s plenty of time to go over their Turkish. Like when we’re killing time in a parking lot back in Scotland...

“Kai-yuh-su!” I cry out triumphantly and my daughter cheers. Suddenly I smile. “Hey, do you remember how to say apricot in Japanese?”


Robin said...

You have had such amazing experiences. It's so lovely that your girls also have your love of language!

I'm in awe of your language ability! I only speak (and I use that term loosely) Italian, and it took years and years to learn. Lately I've tried to learn Spanish, and I keep mixing up Italian and Spanish. It feels pretty hopeless. I'm a gringo.

Charles Gramlich said...

YOur comment about how you've learned languages in odd ways sure brings home the cosmopolitan nature of the world we live in today.

Charlie said...

You've never mentioned that you can speak Scots too—which you probably learned in Abyssinia.

I'm going in the other room now and pout—in English, because it's the only language I know.

Eryl Shields said...

If I ever get to Turkey again I now know one word, thanks. Actually, come to think of it, apricot is one of only a very few words (all foods) I know in several languages, all of them European.

Kit said...

Learning Japanese in an attic in Amsterdam and then using it in Korea....that really does make for amazing stories. I'm so impressed your girls are also soaking up other languages under their own steam.

Kim Ayres said...

I can count to 10 in Welsh...

Kappa no He said...

Put the novel on the back burner. You must write your memoirs!


Carolie said...

Loved the last line, Mary! I just adore hearing about all your experiences. I admire you so much! How can you possibly denigrate your brain, which already has FAR more language than 99.9% of Americans will ever achieve (and I'm just talking about English vocabulary! ha ha ha!)

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- Thank you for saying that! I've begun to think that my experiences aren't all that amazing -- that I'm just someone who is thrilled with trifles and who loves describing them in detail. I know that must be my one valuable gift, but how do I turn it into something others will want to read?

I'm a gringa too, but I wish to God I could speak Italian! I LOVE Spanish, but my Spanish isn't quite as good as my (atrocious) French. I once spoke Spanish and French with Italians in Mexico. We covered things like food preferences and family members. I was absolutely exhausted.

Charles -- When I consider the friends my daughters have, how incredibly diverse their backgrounds are, I certainly agree with you. I love this diversity. When I was growing up, diversity was a lot harder to find and generally hidden away for fear of drawing unwanted attention. Now it is proudly displayed and I love that even more.

Charlie -- I can't speak Scots! Every time I make a timid effort at it, our Acquired Daughter laughs so hard she almost ruptures herself. Speaking Scots is a lot more than complicated than throwing in the odd 'wee', 'smidgen', or 'jobby'. And my Scots accent isn't even up to Scotty's from Star Trek.

I can pout in lots of different languages, though. I'm a complete natural at it.

Eryl -- Drop by when you can and I can fill you in on all the fruits and vegetables AND rooms in a house. It'll come in handy providing you spend all your time in Turkey at a greengrocer's.

Kit -- The truth is, I felt beyond irritated coming home from work to find all three girls trading Korean words and phrases they'd learned when they were virtually ignoring a whole world of Turkish right at their doorstep. But I see that I've been learning languages this way myself -- not necessarily in the most straightforward or commonsensical way. I really should be happy that they're learning anything at all, however impractical it seems to be.

Kim -- I used to be able to do that too (when we were living in Wales), but I've since forgotten! Next time we meet, please help me brush up on this. In return, I'll teach you all the Turkish I know. We can cover that in five minutes, tops.

Kappa -- Thank you for saying that.

The consensus is that people only want to read about the experiences of those who are glamorous or famous. I actually did write a memoir of my experiences learning Japanese and I shopped it around a bit. Half a dozen agents told me that it was charming and absorbing, but it would not sell. Now I have a blog, and it is some consolation that people who are not related to me do choose to read it.

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- (Our posts just crossed!)

In all honesty, my language learning is fraught with error and is no great shakes. In a way, that is why I feel my experiences are more worthwhile to share. Who wants to read about someone who is a linguistic genius and never confuses words or makes embarrassing mistakes? Anyone who reads my language learning stories ought to go away thinking that if I could do it, they can too. And do it even better.

angryparsnip said...

The Agents were wrong. . . your blog proves it. I really enjoy reading your stories.

I loved Bruce Feiler Book " Learning To Bow" and I lost the book in the move were the author walked the length of Japan and wrote about what happened along the way.

There is a place for your stories !

Anne Spollen said...

Did you ever try learning Irish? I did, for two days. Maybe I had the wrong couldn't have been the wrong brain, right?

But you are giving your kids such a great education. I bring my kids to Brooklyn from time to time.

adrienne said...

Okay, sounds like cashew...the pit resembles a it. Let's see if I can remember even one Turkish word a week from now!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Daughter Amy was studying Japanese when she spent her Junior year of college in Lyon. She actually said it was easier to translate French into Japanese!! I couldn't wrap my head around that; I would think one would need to rely on your "core" language to keep one foot in comprehension.

The question I have for you, Mary, is: can you say "squirrel" in Turkish?

Vijaya said...

Great post! I just read through the comments and see that someone else would like you to write a memoir ... that you did. Ah, what do people know? Even when I don't comment, I love reading your stories. And I suspect you have many more readers who are shy ...

Chris Eldin said...

AHAHAH! Love your last line!
My husband loves apricots. Now I'm trying to...
It's "Mish-Mish" in Arabic. Isn't that a funny word?

I think you need to learn how to say this word in as many languages as possible.

Ello said...

What an awesome story. And you totally blow me away with your languages!

Mary Witzl said...

AP -- Your kind words cheer me up no end. It means so much to me that people want to write what I read.

I myself love reading the memoirs of ordinary people written with humor and perception. I could hardly care less about celebrities' ghost-written accounts of their lives. I don't care whether the author was an astronaut or a dry cleaner's receptionist as long as she can make me smile or cry and see a different world I might never have encountered. That's the kind of writing I aim for, and sometimes I worry that no one has offered to represent me because I just haven't got my prose to sparkle enough. But at least I can work on that; I'll never be rich and famous.

AnneS -- I've never tried to learn Irish, but I do know a handful of people who speak Scottish Gaelic, which sounds beautiful -- all breathy and evocative. I'll never say never.

Brooklyn is a great place for a budding linguist. I got lost in Brooklyn once and spent over 30 minutes before I found someone who spoke a language I knew.

Adrienne -- Ooh, I can tell a fellow language learner when I meet one! This is exactly the way you do it. The problem is, I'd confuse 'cashew' with some other nut and end up with something preposterous.

Robert -- If you translate from one foreign language into another, unless you're very advanced, it IS easier, as you tend to pare everything down to bare bones. You don't end up struggling to translate idioms or figures of speech.

I can't say squirrel yet. I've got fish, cat, horse and dog, though. Squirrels will have to wait until next year.

Vijaya -- Thank you for saying that. I sometimes think that the main reason people visit my blog is to find out whether you can eat slugs or what to do to propagate montbretia. It's nice to think that I have proper, respectful lurkers.

Chris -- Mish-mish in Arabic? I won't forget that one. We had an apricot tree when I was growing up. Mish-mish is EXACTLY what runs through your head when you step on a ripe one hiding in the long grass...

Ello -- There is nothing very awesome about this! Really, the only amazing thing is that I don't prudently stick to one language, but feel compelled to tilt at many, like Don Quixote with his windmills.

Barbara Martin said...

Ello is correct, Mary. Your posts on learning languages is amazing and how wonderful you have been provided opportunities to do so.

I love coming to your blog to read about your current adventures in a life that seems to drive you crazy, but life is like that everywhere. We haven't been able to write about our crazy lives the way you do.