Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hola! 北 京 烤 鸭, s'il vous plaît

These days, neuropsychologists and neurobiologists can use fancy imaging procedures like fMRI or PET scanning to map and correlate brain activity to various cognitive functions.  So, I am sure my next observation would not stand up to the scrutiny of modern science, but intuitively I know this:

For a person whose primary language is English and who has only limited knowledge of other languages, words are stored in our brains in one of two ‘bins.’  First, there is the large “ENGLISH bin” which holds thousands of words, sorted efficiently as to part of speech, tense, case and so on.  

Then there is the much smaller “OTHER bin” where all other words are stored.  The words in the “OTHER bin” are not sorted at all- certainly not by part of speech, certainly not based on  tense or case.  In fact, I have concluded that they are not even sorted by language.   

They are all just tossed in that “OTHER bin” like the miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam that we hide in the junk drawer when company is coming.

The evidence for my hypothesis comes from my experiences abroad this summer in Spain, Morocco, China and Taiwan.  I think I know English pretty well, although regular readers of my blog may disagree.  Nonetheless, according to Wikipedia, a college educated person knows, on average, 17,000 word families, so I’ll assume I do too.  I studied German in high school and college and remember a fair amount, but I’d optimistically estimate my German vocabulary to be less than 1% of my English vocabulary- maybe a  hundred words at most.  In my next best language, French, I may know a whopping total of 20-30 words, excluding menu items.  In Spanish, I learned maybe 5-10 non-culinary words – certainly not enough to express a single thought or idea.  Considering Chinese (3-4 words) and Arabic (1 or 2 words) and you can see why I am grateful that people all over the world place a high value on studying the English language.  No matter where we were, we could usually find someone who could speak at least some English and could help us out.  In China, we had full-fledged translators, which was helpful, because otherwise I’d have never said more than ' [nǐ hǎo] and   [xie xie].  Actually, “Hello” and “thank you” can take you surprisingly far in a foreign land, but are not exactly enough for deep conversation, or any conversation for that matter.

So, my English word bin contains 17,000 word families, and all together my “OTHER bin" may include at most a couple hundred words, tossed together randomly, a veritable smorgasbord of gibberish.  I have a strong conviction that when traveling it is polite to be able to at least say SOMETHING in the native language of the country I’m visiting, but when I’d reach into my “OTHER bin" for a word or a phrase that I had tried to learn, pretty much anything could come out.  It was like reaching blindfolded into the junk drawer for a screwdriver and getting a roll of scotch tape.  So, I repeatedly thanked Moroccans in Spanish, greeted Chinese people in German, ordered water in Spain using French, and looked for the toilette in languages that neither I nor my listener knew at all, indeed,sometimes in  languages that were fictitious hybrids of miscellaneous sounds and syllables cobbled together.

Ellen calls it linguistic confusion. 

I call it embarrassing.

I also call it “Summer 2012.”  I was secretly gratified to hear one of the people in my group in say “Gracias” to a Chinese waiter.  I guess I am not the only one suffering from a  linguistic identity crisis.

This is the menu for the best dinner ever.  I have no idea what it says, but it was all delicious!

Today I am grateful for the encouragement of friends and family who are reading this blog.  It helps keep me motivated and keeps me writing.  Thanks!

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