Lost in Translation

shutterstock_193471298They say the human brain has an almost limitless capacity for learning.

And when it comes to languages, I would say that is probably true, provided a child has been immersed in multiple languages from a very early age. I have a Greek friend married to a Serbian, and though neither speaks the others’ language, they communicate in English, and their son is fluent in all three. He learned fairly early oncartoon1 how to work this to his advantage using the old, “I’m going to tell (the other parent) what you just said!” angle. Worked like a charm.

I never took a language class in high school, largely because my class load was full of music and arts classes, which were way more fun than conjugating Spanish verbs. Years later when I was living in Texas, I so sincerely regretted that decision!

In my mid-twenties, I studied Russian for a couple of years, which I enjoyed very much indeed, even if I have rare occasion to use it. HH and I took the classes together, and the only thing he took away from the course was “Ya nyeznayoo… sprashivaya maya zhena” (“I don’t understand, ask my wife”) and “Okno studientkay,” some weird combination of mispronounced and half remembered words, a rough translation being “window student.” Ish.

Needless to say, we decided fairly quickly that HH was not terribly proficient in languages.


Oh, if only we had discovered Russian cartoons back in 1992…

Having come to live in England these many years, the most useful second language would have to be French, since a Calais wine run is only a short train ride under the Channel, and if you travel in Europe at all, many there speak it as a second language anyway. Cheap French wine is a great incentive to learn such useful phrases as acceptez-vous les cartes de crédit? Equally important is Où sont les toilettes?

Once you cross over into Italy or Spain, things get a little trickier. Being Latin based languages, they are similar… yet completely different. In listening or reading, you may actually understand a fair bit. However, scraping one’s gray matter for the proper words is difficult once your brain gets to be the age of mine.

As most of you know, we just returned from holiday in Italy. Passing through France, my brain kept reaching for Russian words, since it is my first “second” language, if that makes any sense. Once I reached Italy, my French had kicked in and I had forgotten all of my hard-earned Italian phrases and words from our visit last summer.


If at first you don’t succeed, keep making a fool of yourself…

By the time I got my head around saying si instead of oui, it was time to leave Italy and we were heading back through France. Se il vous plaît had become per favore, and grazie showed up in place of merci. I don’t know how many times I got it wrong, but it was a whole lot, enough to evoke laughter from the rest of my family, the lady running the hotel, and most of the other travellers at breakfast.

I have a dear friend from the Czech Republic who has lived in a number of European countries. The other day, I asked her how many languages she spoke. “Not that many,” she said, “Only Czech and English, of course… and I can get by in Norwegian. Plus Polish…a little bit of Hindi and some Chinese phrases…”

And she calls this “not many” languages!

We Americans are, I am convinced, generally lazy in the language department. Hands up, I admit it. But there is a method to this madness, I think. If we are rubbish at other languages long enough, the rest of the world will simply HAVE to learn to speak English. I figure I am giving the rest of the non-English speaking world more incentive. Si? Oui? Da?

Arrivederci, y’all!

Mother Hen

  • featured image: Shutterstock
  • Spanish cartoon:
  • Garfield:
  • dunce cap:

© motherhendiaries 2015, all rights reserved

34 replies »

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post and your perspective on language learning! My friend translated the Garfield cartoon for me:)


  2. My English is excellent (possibly better than yours if I leave my tongue in my cheek) and my French is passable (which is lucky as my French girlfriend doesn’t speak a word of English).
    I can get by in Spanish, Italian, German and (bizarrely) Japanese.
    I’ve got phrases in Arabic, Urdu, Czech and Wolof.
    I’m sure there are some languages i’ve missed out.
    But what does this all mean? Nothing.
    its always been my firm opinion that with languages, you either can or you can’t. Not at all a question of intelligence, just a gift you’re born with.
    if one is lucky enough to be born with this gift, then not too much work is needed, but if you can’t its incredibly difficult.
    Michel Thomas (language teacher blokey) reckons you only need 600 words in a foreign language to be able to communicate and understand with minimal problems. 600 really isn’t all that many at all.

    Je te souhaite bonne chances avec tes devoirs pour les prochains achats de vin chez moi.


Cheep, Cluck or Crow... Just Make Some Noise!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s