12 November 2006

twisted tongues

Yesterday I went to a party at a house where four women of different nationalities live. Naturally the crowd matched their diversity, with a count of at least 9 different countries represented. There was almost no overlap in the primary languages, except for one Swiss guy who found himself with Germans as well as a Frenchman to talk to.

Growing up in the US, it was of course part of the education to learn another language, but it was rather like a hat to wear at Ascot. Not very practical, but you pull it out every now and then, impress everyone, have a good laugh, and then put it away in favor of something more useful. I learned French in school, and enjoyed it tremendously but I didn't have a chance to actually use it on real French people until age 20. This is the common story. You can travel six hours on a plane and still be in the United States where everyone still speaks English, and there's all the diversity of landscape and climate and population density in one country that you could ever want, both for business and pleasure. So, knowing another language is a nice thing but hardly necessary.

Then I come here, and an idle mention that I speak French blossoms into having to edit proposals in French, and then I keep finding places and pockets where it's the most useful language to communicate. Evenings out or in usually bring me into contact with half a dozen other nationalities, so any other language knowledge is bound to come out and put through its paces. Even my three sentences in Russian and the other three in Portuguese have been enough to surprise and create a connection where there wasn't before.

The lack of shared words doesn't seem to stop people from communicating anyway though. For example, last night at the party I came upon three goldsmiths having a riotous conversation, but none of them spoke the same language with the same abilities, so they'd resorted to a blend of Pictionary, good guesses, and gestures. Other conversations would begin in one language, switch to another midway through, then back to a third for the benefit of a newcomer. Here, nobody is impressed if you can speak another language, at least unless you're from the US. Then everyone falls over themselves with amazement that I learned it there and don't sound like a mangled goat when I talk. It happens, people, and there are a lot more of us out there that can do it.

I still feel woefully inadequate when most people are fluent in at least two languages and have picked up two or three others while studying, working, or just for fun and thrills. If I stick with this lifestyle maybe it'll happen to me too, but for now I'll just have to be content with understanding the Danish cooking instructions on the back of the frozen veggies, or the sign about gastronomical diseases in Norwegian that's been put up in the bathroom at my work.

Ship sighting: This afternoon as I was heading to the pool, there was a little fishingboat in a driveway I pass often. It was wonderfully out of context there in the midst of the usual Reykjavik neighborhoodness- house, driveway, house, yard, trampoline, minivan, boat. When I passed by later, a tarp had been rigged up over the stern and I could hear conversation underneath. I guess they've got a DIY preparation for the next fishing season going on under there.


carmen said...

omg, you were at what I would consider the quintessential Carmen party. WHY WAS I NOT THERE! sigh. Because like you say, I am in the US and unless it's the pizza delivery boy to whom I say "Gracias", there just aren't foreign languages happening at a party, no matter how much we drink.

Also, you have 3 sentences in Portuguese? These I would love to hear! :)

Anonymous said...

Next post in French?

Anonymous said...

Amazingly enough Sacramento is supposedly the most diverse city in America in terms of languages spoken and cultures represented. I have heard patients in the hospital speaking languages I have never even heard of. It's pretty cool. Of course, it would be even better if more providers could speak some of them. Until our educational system wakes up and teaches language earlier, I guess we'll have to make do with translators.

ECS said...

Carmen- so come on over! We needed someone who spoke Portuguese to round out the effect. As for my sentences, I'm not usually very forthcoming with them but I impressed a bunch of fishermen back in April.

Stéphane... my spoken French is far better than my written, which is why I'm not sure that's gonna happen anytime soon!

E- I know there are lots of languages spoken in the US, and I heard a lot when I was just walking down the street in Boston a few weeks ago. Maybe it's just that because I am part of the minority speaks-other-languages group living here now, I interface with more of the same and actually have to speak my other languages.

Jade said...

That's pretty cool. When I came to study in the US, one of my favorite things was having a circle of international friends. Though everybody knew English, you could always find somebody who knew the other languages you mastered.

I'm glad to hear about stuff like that in Iceland. It looks like I'll be able to use my French again next year when I move there :).

By the way, E, I really like the often-changing pictures on the upper left corner of your blog, you have a good eye :)


ECS said...

Jade- sounds like you have an interesting story to tell.. studying in the US, moving to Iceland, speaking French. What's bringing you to live here?

Glad you like the pictures. I try to keep them somewhat related to the season or the stories, but you can always see all of them on my photo page

Jade said...

Hi E

Well, here's my story. I'm a Lebanese guy who moved to the US for grad school in 2002, where I met my then girlfriend (she has American and Icelandic citizenship). I've been working in the US since 2005. We got married recently, and she has to do research for her PhD in Iceland (studying Thai immigrants in Iceland). So I decided to go with her! Hopefully the residency app will get processed without problems, and I will be able to find a job :)

And thank you for the link. Iceland is just so photogenic..

Edward said...

What's important is that you surround yourself with two types of people--those who aren't afraid to try out their little pieces of foreign languages, however imperfect they are, and those would never embarrass someone else for doing so.

Those of us who appreciate communication seem to have a way of finding one another. I myself was born in the US (I'm a New Englander) to an Icelandic mother and an American father. I lived and worked briefly in Iceland, but now reside in Sacramento, CA.
Like so many others I took years of French in high school and college, but I'm always trying to pick up phrases--whether it's Mandarin, Finnish or Portuguese. I love being able to at least greet someone in their native tongue.

ECS said...

Hi Jade! Sounds like an adventuresome lifestyle there. Just how I like it too. Good luck with the application, but I'm sure you won't have problems.

Edward- I've made a point of doing this kind of thing for many years actually- not just surrounding myself with people, but putting various programs and devices in other languages too. For many years I used a German webmail that had great spam filters and was only available in German. My cellphone in the US was in French, and now I have it in Icelandic, and my iPod is now in Danish. It's an easy way to learn a few words, even if they're in a peculiar and specific category.