Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 19, 2011

Babeling On

Before I leave the subject of traveling as a non-native speaker of foreign languages, I have a bit more to say. I know that many of you didn’t see the first post about traveling in foreign languages (very few hits), so, if you missed it, CLICK HERE.

When The Counselor and I were in college, we took a course in German literature in translation, taught by one of the school’s German professors (OK, back then he wasn’t yet a professor, but 40 years on, he is, so I give him that title now). A one-term course in the literature of an entire language is, by necessity, “chunky,” if you will, and we studied the big, honkin’ dudes: Goethe, Schiller, u.s.w. (“u.s.w.” means “und so weiter,” the German way of saying, “etc.” which is the Latin way of saying “and so forth.” No, wait, “And so forth” is the English way of saying “et cetera…” well, never mind).

During that course, Herr L., our instructor, told us an interesting anecdote about his progress toward becoming a fluent speaker of German, which was not his native language. At some point in his education, an instructor constructed an exercise to test the ability to think as a native speaker of the language. It consisted of showing his class signs and advertising in German. These were typical store signs or billboards  that one might see anywhere, in any language, but with letters missing. Imagine that you encounter a lighted sign that has some of the letters burnt out, and  the sign reads, “___rbroiled B__gers.” No problem,” you think to yourself, because this is an exercise you perform every day. There are numerous little hints of context you can couple with the tens of thousands of words you know to allow your amazing human brain to check that meaningless phrase, “rbroiled B  gers” against your word hoard and you quickly come up with “Charbroiled Burgers.”

But, can you do it in another language? Some simple words are easy. “_ati__rie” becomes “Patisserie” (especially easy if the building looks like it’s a pastry shop). But it’s not so easy if it’s a billboard with an idiomatic phrase. I’ve always thought that exercise was an extremely clever way to demonstrate to students that there is a lot of hard work involved in truly mastering a language.

Something like this came to mind as we were heading home from our two weeks in Italy and France. One of the great pleasures of air travel in Europe is that as one boards the plane, either in the waiting area or just at the end of the jetway, there is a rack stacked full of the day’s newspapers – free to passengers. Boarding a plane in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, you’ll find Le Monde and Le Figaro and several other French-language publications, along with the Italian Corriere della Serre and La Republica, the German Die Welt am Sonntag and … well, a lot of newspapers. I always grab as many as I can reasonable carry and head to my seat. With my broken, rudimentary knowledge of the languages I can’t read the articles in these publications with any semblance of real understanding. What fascinates me is, first, the undying power of the press in every language. If you think The New York Times or The Washington Post are the ne plus ultra of journalism, uniquely chock-full of consideration of the wide world, then you have never gone to your local public library to glance through the foreign press. These are immense publications of vast scope, and they tirelessly cover the world from the national and cultural perspective of their readership. Even my pitiful vocabulary gives me some ability to appreciate the effusiveness of the Italian press and the reasoned, restrained (sometimes) stance of the French and the endlessly thorough and fact-niggling dedication to FACT of the Germans. Even to the casual student of language and culture, there’s something on display in the daily press of every country that is worth weeks of meeting and speaking to individuals in those countries.

After we were airborne, I was plowing through a long article about travel to some beautiful part of Germany in a German newspaper. Let me tell you, friends, a familiarity with the vocabulary of the ancient Anglo-Saxons does not fully prepare one for the depth and scope of contemporary German language. Although I recognized a lot of the words, or, at least, could grasp the sense of many of their root meanings, I was struck by the immense chasm that separated me from what a ten year-old child knew about that language and what I would never know. Take just the headline of the article. In the mode of headline editors everywhere around the world, this one clearly was making some clever play on words. I could tell that. But was it a famous line from Goethe or Schiller, or even the common German translation of a line from Shakespeare? Or was it a reference to some currently popular catch phrase from advertising or politics? It struck me that even if I sat down with a dictionary and diligently translated every word in that article and came to understand everything that it had to say, I would never have the grasp of German cultural references that any German twelve year-old possesses. In fact, I realized, every single sentence had two modes: the literal meaning of the words, and the unspoken cultural references that any particular phrase might be intended to convey. When one reads a well-known work of literature in a foreign language — German, in this case — there’s usually an editor who provides helpful footnotes explaining that a certain passage is referring to the German version of Shakespeare’s “Ah, that this too, too solid flesh should melt.” Newspapers don’t have footnotes or scholarly editors. They assume that their readers GET it. I, clearly, did not GET it, nor would I, ever in any newspaper in any language other than English anywhere in the world. (I point out here that British newspapers are almost never present at those airport boarding areas: blame Rupert Murdoch.)

On top of my disappointments in trying to speak the local language with the hard-pressed agents in Italian train stations and with the kindly, generous people who waited on us in French restaurants,  this was, surely, the final blow. The message was clear: I should go home and limit myself to reading and speaking English until the end of my days. I was thirty or even forty years too late to begin the task of ever hoping to stand on a par with native speakers of a foreign language.

On that same 10-hour flight home, I began to leaf through some other publications I’d picked up on the streets of Treviso and Nice. You’ve seen the equivalents of these publications in a dozen cities: freebie real estate advertising tabloids. After all, how can one not be curious to know how much it would cost to buy a little place in some charming corner of Europe? I just had to get a few of them to read. (With a little searching, you often can find English language versions, particularly in places that have long been targeted by Brits buying vacation homes, especially in Tuscany, which has a huge real estate industry serving Britons. One encounters English-language roadside real estate billboards, and the area is often called “Tuscanyshire.”) So, here’s a page from one of those pubs from Treviso:

Click on this image to enlarge

Here, indeed, is a test in cultural literacy. Many of the word meanings will be apparent to you, others you might guess with some success and, with reasonable effort and a good dictionary, you could translate every word on this page. But, what do they mean? In real estate terms, that is? And there are abbreviations and the sort of business jargon that is typical in English language real estate ads, too. Let’s take a look at one of these ads, say the second one in the first column, a “villetta singola” in Villorba, which we assume is a suburb of Treviso or a nearby village. Sez: “disposta su unico piano con ingresso soggiorno.” That probably means it’s on one floor and has an entry hall. “Cucina a vista:” is that a kitchen with a view or does that mean something specific in Italian real estate, like maybe an open kitchen? Don’t know without living there. “Tre camere, due bagni:” there are three bedrooms and two baths. “Taverna;” hmm: Google Translate tells me that, sure enough, a “taverna” is a tavern. Does this place have a tavern or bar or does that mean something specific in Italian real estate? Don’t know without living there. “Doppio garage e scoperto privato.” There’s a double garage, that seems okay, but while I can discern that “scoperto” means “open” and “privato” obviously means “private,” I have no clue exactly what they mean to signify with a “private outdoors.” Is it that simple, or is it shorthand for something else?

And that’s an easy one. Obviously you have a vast amount of study in front of you before you consider plunking down 260,000 Euros ($374,644 at today’s rate).

For those of you who have mastered more than one language, I congratulate you. I think I’m going to go read a few pages of Mark Twain to cool off.

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