Tuesday, 24 July 2012


Привет, Россия. Очень приятно. Я надеюсь, что не имеют никакого наступления ошибки. Это все перевести Google.

I cannot speak Russian. Nor write in Cyrillic. That was all Google Translate, hopefully semi-correct.

As a child, language never meant anything to me. I spoke one to my mom and another to my dad. As easy as that. Then, when I started school, suddenly there was a third one added into the mix. It wasn't hard to learn, and soon I progressed to the intermediate class. I remember being in that class for the first time. About twenty six-year-olds being told some story about how the little fish travels from the stream all the way to the ocean. At that age my eyes would occasionally start to water at random times, and I swear it was not crying. During the account of Mr. Fish's adventures my eyes chose to start producing tears, and the whole class was very concerned about my sadness concerning the fish. All I could say, very embarrassedly, was "Meine Augen tränen nur." Not even in French. Well, at least I was not the girl who peed in her pants during class.

The next step in language learning was Mexico. All the other children were either Mexican or could speak Spanish. Not I. For a year, the fat boy next to me kept calling me tonta, until I could one day retort, very eloquently, "Tu eres tonto." For a year I stalked my sister during break time since no one in my class wanted to speak to me in a language I could understand. I missed the good old days of watery eyes about wandering fish, now crying for real in my room after school. And then, after a year, hello Spanish. The language coming out of my mouth was the one of a native speaker, the looks not so much. I was asked to join the cool girls' group, la bola. Things were looking up.

But then, wham bam, we up and left. Next challenge. English. I had heard it but had never really spoken a word of English. My mom sat outside with me in the sun and I learnt things like As dead as a doornail. It was no use though, because initially I had no idea what the teacher was saying. Once I asked the girl opposite me to tell me what we were supposed to being doing, and Mrs. Nöffke asked me to leave the class. Well, that is what the girl translated. But then she added in a whisper that I should just stay seated and be quiet.

I had a few years on non-language issues. Puberty and hormones were of greater concern. Then, at university, I volunteered to attempt to learn Latin. The other languages had been easy, and this was their source, so why should it not be, too? Ah, the ignorance. All I remember now is puer and puella (boy and girl, I think). The rest is a complete blank. The origins of Romance will elude me, it seems. 

Now, what remains? To try to learn another? To try and regain the one's out of practice? South Africa has eleven official languages. Two I've got, should the next one be one of these: IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sesotho sa Leboa, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, or Xitsonga? It is a blessing to be able to learn as many languages as possible, but I believe that without some kind of immersion in the original culture, it is of no use. You need to hear the way others speak their mother tongue, the accents and nuances that only someone who has heard this since birth (or even whilst in the womb?!) naturally uses and which are so hard for language learners to understand. An accent is a sign of belonging, of having others like you. An accent is something to be envious of.

One of my cousins has grown up speaking mainly Afrikaans, which means that he has quite a strong accent we he speaks English. Normally, we treat this imperfection of pronunciation as something to be ashamed of, as a marker of the uneducated, the lower class, the one's who could not manage perfect language acquisition of a tongue not their own. I disagree. We aim at speaking like native speakers, but I am not French, nor Spanish, nor English, really. So why must I speak like someone who is? I don't mean the stumbling massacre of language executed by local politicians. There is a difference between having a charming accent and an intentionally dumbed down accent to make you appear closer to the masses.

But what of the baggage that language carries with it? How are we embarrassed by our speaking? When I had to read my short story, I was petrified of mispronouncing the words, of making the story I told in my head different from the one I read simply by saying it wrongly. This Friday presents another linguistic challenge. For four years, English has dominated my brain's language centre. Now I need to present in my father tongue, my school tongue, a language used irregularly over the past years in a colloquial mix of slang and words borrowed from other languages. I have forgotten how to speak in the way that cursive handwriting looks on the page, the Dichter and Denker part having been somewhat neglected. 

It is interesting to note that the two languages my parents taught me have both originated from cultures hated by others for old atrocities. Before launching into "Igh libbe dish", non-Germans comment on the hardness of language, the harsh mix of sounds foreign to their ears. For Afrikaans it is the same comments. Occasionally someone will say it is ugly.

I think there is beauty in words on pages, words reaching ears and even if no meaning is understood, the sounds can still effect some reaction. You know how people say French is such a beautiful language? But it is the same thing as telling a dog in a soothing, friendly tone that you will not feed him for a week. We react to the sound of things, not to the truth of it.

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