LEARNING A LANGWICH

Learning (or, in my case, trying to learn) another language provided high entertainment for those around me.

In English, I rarely if ever used a word in the wrong way. I was a serious reader very early and had a big passive vocabulary. By passive, I mean I knew a lot of words, but had never used them in conversation. I know what they meant and how to spell them, but not how they sounded.

I had no idea that Too-son and Tucson were the same place. Or that ep-ee-TOME was epitome. I remember those two examples well because of the extreme amusement they caused around me. I was all of 8-years-old. Adults weren’t as nice to kids back then as they are now.

language school

I was much more entertaining in Israel. I am sure that my fumbling attempts to learn the language, having caused extreme hilarity, probably played a part in my never actually learning Hebrew.

My first big discovery — very early in my life in Jerusalem — was that Zion (Zy-un) means penis. Properly in Hebrew, it’s tzee-own. So if you say (fondly) that Israel is the Land of Zion, using your good American pronunciation, you will reduce Israelis within earshot to tears of laughter. They can be a rough crowd.

To add another layer of problems over the difficulty in just getting the words out through my teeth which were clearly not designed for all those gutturals, many words in Hebrew are very much like one another, yet have hugely different meanings. Sha-ah is an hour. Shan-nah is a year. So there you are saying “My Hebrew isn’t all that good, I’ve only been here for two hours.”

After a while, I mostly spoke English and used Hebrew words as needed when I could fine no English equivalent. Eventually, I came home to where almost everyone could be expected to understand most of what I said. Without laughing at me.

You might ponder this when you meet immigrants who are trying to learn English. I mention this only because, having been on the other side of this experience, a little kindness to people trying to work through a difficult life transition while learning a new language (and culture) can go a long way to make them feel less lonely, threatened, excluded, and generally miserable. Just a thought.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.

25 thoughts on “LEARNING A LANGWICH”

    1. BIG similarities. Hilarious ones. I am pretty happy to be living in English these days. It’s not just words. It’s thinking, too. I was always told you have to think in Hebrew to speak it properly and I never got it. Except when someone would call me from the States at some ungodly hour (they never understood the whole “time difference” thing) … and then, more than half asleep, my Hebrew was just fine. It just fell out of my mouth — at exactly the worst possible time. So it was “in there” somewhere. I just couldn’t get it out of my mouth when I wanted it there.

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      1. I once dreamed an entire dream in German and woke up spouting a sentence in German, although I only took one semester in college and could only remember one sentence when I was conscious…Der hunt schlept unter den stuhl!! Probably not spelled correctly.

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        1. I’ve been told that our passive understanding of language is at least 5 times more than what we are able to speak. It must be true. We remember, but we don’t remember that we remember.

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  1. I know only too well how people feel if they do not have the same language. I was in this position for a few years, also with some confusion in pronunciation which could become quite embarrassing. for this reason there are still words that I avoid in Swiss German. We once had a president called Mr. Furgler – now if you pronounce that in the english style you are talking in four letter words about things you should not talk about in public. Yes, I did it – thank goodness he is no longer president, he died 7 years ago. My Swiss German is now 99,999% perfect, but you never know. They speak as many dialects in this country as there are states/Kantons (even more from village to village).

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    1. If you’ve never been a stranger in a foreign land, you can’t imagine the stress of learning to speak properly — and everything else that goes with it. Customs, culture, everything. My Hebrew never got better than “poor.” The music of the language eluded me and maybe I was too wedded to English. And maybe I wasn’t committed to staying forever, as witnessed by my leaving after 9 years.

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  2. I made a few slip-ups while living in Germany too. For example “it is hot to me” (in German obviously) means “I’m hot”. Saying “I am hot” in German means “I’m feeling horny” 🙂 Similarly, and vice versa, for “I am cold”.

    I’ve found that having learned another language I can guess what people are trying to say through the exact mistakes they’re making (and also understand why they’re making those mistakes) – I have a feeling for which words in English could easily be mistranslated.

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    1. Someone once told me you can figure out the structure of any foreign language by listening to how non-native speakers use English. I think that’s probably true. We have such loose grammar anyway, how can they learn rules when we don’t (apparently) have any?

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      1. Apparently English is easy to learn to speak (as you can make millions of mistakes and we still understand, plus we have hardly any declension/conjugation variations), but very difficult to master (as it has almost no rules to follow).

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        1. I think you summed it up very succinctly and well. It is easy to speak English minimally, badly, yet most people will know what you mean anyhow … but very difficult to use well. I can’t think of any rules in English that are firm enough to really BE rules. Practically all our verbs are irregular. Modifiers can be placed almost anywhere. Punctuation is whimsical. Yet properly used, English is a language of wondrous flexibility, playfulness, and power. I do love our language — or is that langwich?

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  3. Your posts reminds me of an incident as a young woman. I was eating dinner at a restaurant and really liked the salad dressing, so I asked the waitress (who was a recent immigrant) what kind of salad dressing it was. She said [phonetically]: Moe-narge. I had never heard of “Moenarge”, so she offered to bring the bottle out to show me. It was “Monarch” – she was trying to give it a French pronunciation. We all had a good laugh over that.

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    1. I think we all forget from time to time what a difficult language English can be. A sense of humor and patience goes a long way to making life easier for those who are trying to fit in 🙂 Moe-narge. It sounds like a menage with a twist.

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  4. We have a problem with Australian and New Zealand accents – in particular six and sex. And I also had the same problem in Austria – six and sechs. A great cause of amusement all around.

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  5. I was hired, in 2003, to record a 2 week symphonic festival in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, a Spanish speaking country. I understand more spanish than I can speak due to my long stint as a musician playing with salsa bands in NY during the 60s.

    Basically I wasn’t too worried that I could understand or be understood.., but then there was my assistant. He’s a riot of a guy and decent engineer in his own right and he was so jazzed at going down there with me that he purchased one of these little translation books. Having little knowledge of the differences in spanish grammatical construction he jumped in with both feet, using his newly acquired book. Needless to say he provided those around us with endless hilarity as he tried to converse, building his communications as you would in english. They loved him, egged him on and his antics kept the pressure off me to be free to set up a complicated system of microphones. All this to say that improper use of languages unfamiliar to us can be beneficial under the right circumstances. BTW, he did a splendid job of helping me get through the task at hand.

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    1. I failed to mention that the translation book was a “word for word” volume devoid of any reference to grammatical construction.., thus the humor as a result.

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    1. We have a lot of local dialects, though in theory, we all speak English. But sometimes, people from another region pronounce words so differently, it doesn’t sound like English. When we were in Ireland, I didn’t understand anyone at all. Garry reads lips, so he was actually having an easier time than I was. Reading English, everyone understand it. Hearing it … well … that’s something else. It must be very interesting living in one country in which so many different languages are spoken. Challenging!

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