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My foreign language problem

The hardest thing I’ve done all year is try to learn Mandarin. Oh, God, how I tried. I blew a bundle on books, CDs, a handy-dandy visual dictionary and private lessons with an infinitely patient woman for whom I dutifully mimicked the exacting lilt of her native tongue with its five mystifying tones. If only I knew what I was saying and whether it would get me to the subway station in Beijing!

On top of all that I tried podcasts, which at least were free. I’d sit at my computer, endlessly repeating the same tiresome drill about buying a loaf of bread (since when do tourists in China go shopping for bread?) as my grandson protested from the next room, “I’m trying to read!” He had the last laugh, though. He decided to spoof my Mandarin drill. I knew I was failing at this stuff when a 12-year-old’s gleeful gibberish sounded just like the real thing.

I can now say exactly two things in Mandarin—“hello” (ni hao) and “don’t want it” (bu yao). I’ve forgotten my numbers, my days of the week and all the other mystifying words that sound nothing at all like any words I’ve learned before, but after running the gauntlet of vendors at the Great Wall of China, all of whom flogged the same flimsy T-shirts with outstretched arms and limitless energy, I will never forget bu yao.

Once upon a time, it seemed I had a gift for languages. To ace a ninth-grade French quiz, all I had to do was remember the bland conversations of a fictional student named John, who was always looking for something no 14-year-old is desperate to find (the library, the post office, a fourth for bridge). John made the City of Light seem so dull that his fogeyish questions became perversely indelible (I could share them with you now, but I’d rather not try your patience).

While my French is now decidedly rusty, I have dazzled myself by making intelligible requests in Provence and the Dordogne. You want a brush to clean your muddy hiking boots? Trust me, I can get it from the chambermaid. And then I get a swelled head. I start to picture myself learning Spanish for a trip to Barcelona, Italian for the hill towns of Tuscany. Catch is, my smattering of Spanish keeps infecting my scraps of Italian and vice versa. I say “buenas noches” instead of “buona sera.” Will I ever figure this out? I’m a word person, after all. My honour is at stake!

According to my friend Zoe, who travels the world learning languages from Greek to Swedish, there’s hope for bumblers like me. All I have to do is plunk myself down in some exotic locale, with nothing but chutzpah and a phrase book, and brave the local market. A few hours of improvisational haggling, and I’ll be on my way. My friend Helen has another theory: the way to learn a language is in bed. If she’s right, I’m out of luck (see “Ex-lovers: a midlife meditation”).

My virtual friend Dominik, a multilingual German in his 20s, encourages me to relax and keep trying. “The more often you’ve done something, the easier it gets,” he says in an e-mail. “If you know how to cook 200 dishes, you automatically use that knowledge when you cook a new one.” In Dominik’s lengthy message, I didn’t find a single misspelling or grammatical mistake. Don’t you love how those northern Europeans can outdo most of us North Americans at our own language? Lucky devils, they got an early start–years of English starting in primary school. No wonder Dominik fares quite nicely in Mandarin. His advice comes down to this: my foreign language problem is all in my head. I’ll say! It’s those aging brain cells, dammit!

A few years ago I enrolled in a Spanish class with people mostly many years my junior. I thought I’d be the star when it turned out that several students had never heard of verbs, much less conjugations. Well, guess what? The grammatically challenged folks dropped out. My aging memory creaked and lurched like a broken-down jalopy while everyone else’s hummed like a well-tuned BMW. At the bottom of the class, I too dropped out.

But here’s the irony. Some of the best-traveled people I know are not exactly language whizzes. I just met a couple who have toured most of China, sharing sleepers with ordinary citizens and relying entirely on sign language. Oh, what the hell? Perhaps it’s time to embrace unilingualism.

Posted by Rona

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