The reason for the title will become evident in due course…
In my younger days, I gave serious consideration to emigrating to another country (which shall remain nameless) , and as part of this attempted to learn the local language. I say ‘attempted’ advisedly, since I was unable to locate any ‘natives’ of the country on whom to ‘practice’ on or from whom I could obtain information concerning such important things as grammar and nuance. I was very dependent on textbooks, and while they could give pointers on grammar, they could not, despite their best efforts, produce ‘sound’. However, I persevered and could eventually produce a noise which I fondly-hoped approximated the words I was attempting to say.
Unfortunately, due to situations beyond my control, I was ultimately unable to carry-out my intentions, and the language lessons quietly expired and were filed away in the recesses of my memory.
Time passed and I did the usual career and family things, and found that, curiously, the ‘filed’ words would occasionally resurface come to mind. For ‘old times sake’ I would ‘practice’ them, before allowing them to subside back into the archives.
However, and due to the marvels of technology, I also discovered the internet and found to my amazement, that tutorials were available in ‘my’ language; at least I could now at least ‘hear’ how I was supposed to speak it (although my accent still remained as bad as ever). Progress indeed, but still no contact with any ‘native’ speakers!! Frustrating; to be able to make the noises, but not being able to be sure if they were the right ones.
A seemingly-insurmountable problem.
International politics is a strange creature and can produce some strange results. In the town in which I reside, one such result was the gradual appearance of people from the previously-mentioned country. Driven from their homeland, they arrived quietly, unobtrusively, and kept themselves to themselves. They were also hard-working and quickly integrated themselves into the community. It was at that point that I made their acquaintance.
An organisation I was involved with, brought me into contact with community members and after several meetings in a social setting I very tentatively tried out the three words that I could recall. These constituted a very simple greeting; although, because I was not ‘native -born’ it was very badly accented and must have sounded appalling!!
The response was surprising; a broad smile!! This was followed by an enquiry as to ‘where I had learnt the greeting’ and, more importantly, ‘Why?’ I explained my reasons, to some incredulity, especially when I expressed a desire to learn their language; to fulfill a long-held wish.
And so it began; my linguistic ‘education’.
I should at this point point out that I am actually a qualified ‘English as a Second-Language Teacher’, with the qualification permitting him to teach ‘Emergency’ (‘Get-by’) English to non-English speaking immigrants into his country.
When gaining this qualification, it never occurred to me that I might actually be able to use it on myself!
The result has been illuminating. I have become a ‘project for for four very tolerant and kind native-speaking teachers. They correct me with patience, and help me when I mangle their native tongue. We are all learning, and I get the very distinct impression that I am regarded as something of a ‘pet’, and shown tolerance as a result.
Curiously, my linguistic training has little relevance! Taught that grammar was everything, and that knowledge of verbs, adjectives and compound phrases was crucial to learning and language use, I have found that in fact they aren’t! These are ‘incidentals’; things to be learnt about AFTER the word has been used. One has to ‘survive’ before one deals with the ‘finer’ points. Being able to convey what one wants (to purchase food, for example) is far more important than knowing that ‘I’ comes before ‘E’ or that it is simply not linguistically-acceptable to place words out of their correct grammatical sequence.
So what can I now do? I can greet those I am meeting; both ‘formally’ and ‘informally’. I can count from zero to infinite millions. I can also name some common vegetables / fruits and even some cutlery. Very small things, but, to me, very important things. And I can even understand what is being said to me (or, at least, some of the things; I’m still not fast enough in my understanding; or in replying). My accent is still appalling however, to the extent that one of my tutors very kindly described it as being ‘Cute’. I still don’t know exactly what i am saying (hence the title of this post), but I am progressing; one ‘mangled’ word at a time. It’s fun and yes, I actually am enjoying the experience. Most importantly, it is keeping the ‘Little Grey Cells’ working.Long may it continue.
Finally, a story. Three days after my recent birthday (about which I had said nothing to non-family members), I was with a group of this language community at a business function. Two of them came up to me and after we exchanged greetings (correctly I should add), they looked at each other, then at me, nodded to each other then sang me ‘Happy Birthday in their language. How they knew of my recent ‘event’ I had no idea, but the experience was surprising, endearing and very, very, special. I even understood one of two of the words…