Saturday, March 5, 2011

What did you say?

No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby, - so helpless and so ridiculous.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine traveling to another country, a place where you have no idea what people are saying. Perhaps you've had this happen to you already. I know I have. I remember clutching my French-English word book like a Bible during my stay in France. With its help, I managed to order meals, ask for directions, and buy stamps at the post office. However, I must admit that several times I needed to point to the words on the page because my efforts failed. My pronunciation was obviously way off. Many times the words I needed were not listed or I didn't have enough time to flip through the book to find all the necessary words. At those moments I just smiled and relied on the ol' hand and foot method. Yes, I felt ridiculous. Even after trying to prepare by listening to French language tapes before the journey, my skills were less than adequate.

When I went to Hungary to attend a wedding, I didn't even bother to try learning, because it seemed like an impossibility. No offense to my Hungarian friends but it is a hard language. Besides, I don't think I even had access to a course or materials. I figured it was only a few days and then I was off to Germany and Switzerland where my then-boyfriend (now husband) could translate for me. We were completely lost at times in Hungary and ordered our food by what I call the “good luck method” which is basically holding the menu, pointing to an entree, and saying a little prayer. One night three of us poked our orders to the waiter and when they arrived, none of us were happy until we switched the plates around. In the end, we all ended up with a suitable meal, but it didn't always work out like that. And when my boyfriend ended up with a severe kidney stone, we only managed to get help by phoning the groom who just happened to be a doctor.

Words are wonderful when you can understand them and use them. Imagine sitting through a church sermon and not understanding one single word. My pastor said to me yesterday, “If half the people can't understand what I am saying, then who am I preaching to?” He's absolutely right. His words are wasted on deaf ears and that half of the congregation is bored. My pastor's dilemma is that he will be officiating a wedding this month with a German bride and American groom. Many of the groom's friends and family will be attending. After much thought, he called and asked if I could translate so that the foreign guests would also understand what was being said. I've never done anything like this before so it is rather exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Translating menus for my mother when she visits is a normal task and simple enough but the thought of translating a sermon is a bit scary. It is much more involved, not only in regard to vocabulary but also in feeling and tone, and the whole atmosphere is different. Yet, I know I'll get through it. And if I stumble somewhere along the way, really...I am in a house of God. I guess he'll help me out, right?

Habt ihr auch Geschichten über ein Fremdsprache Problem? Erzähl es mir. Oh, sorry. Just trying to make a point there. What I asked is if you also have a story involving a foreign language dilemma. If so, please share it in the comments box. Go ahead. Give me something to laugh about.

To give you my own example, when I first starting teaching English, I knew very little German. One night in class I brought a snack and knowing that some of the participants are very health conscious I tried to explain that there were no artificial sweeteners or preservatives. I knew the word for sweeteners but not preservatives and it wasn't in my book, so I said in a German accent “No sugar and no--preservatives?” Everyone started laughing and said “I hope not.” You see, Präservativ in German is the word for condom. When they explained what I had said, I am sure my face turned red, but I learned a new word that night...

and it is one I've never forgotten.


Terri L. French said...

haha - love the "preservatives" story! I am trying to learn a little French before our trip to France in May. I should have started a long time ago! My pronunciation stinks. I feel like I need to pucker my lips and pinch my nose! I am sure I will come back with some funny stories. But, I doubt I will top yours!

Linda H. said...

My students come up with good stories as well. Maybe one day I will post about Susanne's celery story.

LKHarris-Kolp said...

That's hilarious, Linda.

Michelle Elvy said...

Love this. And yes, we all have those stories. Here's mine. When I first moved to Germany I came down with a cold. Went to the Apotheke and got me some Vitamin C. The Apothekeriin gave me a long explanation and put the Vit C in my hands. I was nodded eagerly (as you do when you have no idea what someone is saying in a foreign language), said Danke, and paid and left. Got out the door and popped one of the pills into my mouth. And then felt it literally explode in my mouth -- SSSHHHHGGGGGGHHHHGGGGGGGSHSHSHSH. Yep, I learned the word Brausetablette by foaming quite a lot at the mouth and saying rather loudly, "What the *%&$&%&%??!!"