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Graham Davies

Magic language learning moments

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Magic language learning moments

I'm delighted that this section of the Forum is livening up. Please feel free to start new threads. I'm starting a new one here: "Magic language learning moments".

I'm looking for anecdotes falling into the following categories:

1. A personal experience where you were struggling in a foreign language and would have benefited from knowing it better.

2. A personal experience where your knowledge (even limited knowledge) of a foreign language proved to be a very satisfying experience.

3. A point in time where, having studied a language for some time, you suddenly felt you had made a breakthrough.

Here are my contributions:

1. I was travelling with a group of colleagues in Hungary. As the only one in the group that had any knowledge of Hungarian, I was designated to buy the tickets for a short train excursion – no problem: basic transactional language. The train that we expected to arrive did not appear. I asked a porter when the train was expected – no problem in formulating the question and understanding the answer – but his answer did not make sense to me, as he appeared to be saying that it would be many hours before the next train arrived. It finally dawned on us It finally dawned on us (by comparing the station clocks with our watches) that this was the weekend in Hungary when the clocks went forward for summer time and we had missed the train. I went back to the ticket office to try to get a refund on the tickets. Somehow or other I managed to explain the situation using expressions such as “This train did not go”. Eventually, we found an English-speaking Hungarian ticket office clerk who sorted it all out for us. We got our refund. I was encouraged by this experience to keep working on my Hungarian. Transactional language is easy - until something goes wrong.

2. In the 1980s I spent many pleasurable holidays in Italy with my wife and two daughters. At the time I had decided to follow the BBC “Buongiorno Italia” course. I quickly reached the point where I felt fairly comfortable in using basic transactional language, so I put it to the test on our next holiday in Italy by ordering a meal in a restaurant for the four of us. The whole process went smoothly, with the waiter speaking clearly and slowly. When I had finished ordering, the waiter said in perfect English: “I like people who try. You can have half a litre of wine on the house.” The waiter had worked in a restaurant in England only a few miles from where we live. A side-note: Why, oh why, is the BBC cutting down on TV language courses for adults and putting so much effort into Web-based materials?

3. I was a student of German in the 1960s. As part of my university course I spent a period abroad at a German university. At the time I was by no means fluent in German, and always had to think carefully when constructing sentences with subordinate clauses in which the main verb fell at the end of the clause. I joined the university film club, watching German language films three times a week. Suddenly, after listening to many hours of spoken German, it seemed “normal” to me to put the verb at the end of the clause, and I began to utter complex sentences with confidence. The listening skill had transferred to the speaking skill, it seems. A breakthrough had been achieved, and I never looked back.

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One occasion in Rwanda when I was very grateful to have put some effort into learning Kinyarwanda came when I went into my kitchen and discovered that it was full of bees. I rushed out in blind panic and grabbed the first capabale person I could find at the school. He was a builder and spoke no English or french but by flapping my arms frantically making buzzing sounds and uttering 'Mu Rugo, Mu Rugo" (my home, my home) he quickly got the gist and went to bring a stick, a rag and some matches which he then used to smoke the bees out.

After a couple of years using Kinyarwanda to bargain in the market became second nature. Several times at the end of a heated bargaining session during which i brought the price down from white person price to Rwandan price, the vendor would first look put out, then grin and say 'Uri Umunyarwanda' (you are Rwandese) which was a huge compliment. I also started to be referred to as 'Umuzungo wangye' (my white person) rather than just Umuzungo (white person) which I also felt very flattered by. By making an effort to learn their language I began to feel much more accepted as someone who LIVED in Rwanda rather than just visiting.

Rowena

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One feature of Swedish is that a doubled consonant usually makes the preceding vowel sound short, whilst a single one makes it long.

I needed a new hose for my vacuum cleaner, and whilst I didn't know the word for a hose (now I know it's 'slang'), I did know the word for a vacuum cleaner: dammsugare, or 'dust sucker'.

The problem was that I pronounced the first 'a' as a long sound, resulting in 'damsugare'. 'Dam' is the Swedish word for 'lady'.

So there I was in the local shop trying with words and gestures to indicate that I needed a long, cylindrical thing to make my 'damsugare' work. I think that most of the people there didn't realise that you needed a machine for it!

Certainly taught me something about Swedish pronunciation though …

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Magic language learning moments

I'm delighted that this section of the Forum is livening up. Please feel free to start new threads. I'm starting a new one here: "Magic language learning moments".

I'm looking for anecdotes falling into the following categories:

1. A personal experience where you were struggling in a foreign language and would have benefited from knowing it better.

2. A personal experience where your knowledge (even limited knowledge) of a foreign language proved to be a very satisfying experience.

3. A point in time where, having studied a language for some time, you suddenly felt you had made a breakthrough.

Here are my contributions:

1. I was travelling with a group of colleagues in Hungary. As the only one in the group that had any knowledge of Hungarian, I was designated to buy the tickets for a short train excursion – no problem: basic transactional language. The train that we expected to arrive did not appear. I asked a porter when the train was expected – no problem in formulating the question and understanding the answer  – but his answer did not make sense to me, as he appeared to be saying that it would be many hours before the next train arrived. It finally dawned on us It finally dawned on us (by comparing the station clocks with our watches) that this was the weekend in Hungary when the clocks went forward for summer time and we had missed the train. I went back to the ticket office to try to get a refund on the tickets. Somehow or other I managed to explain the situation using expressions such as “This train did not go”. Eventually, we found an English-speaking Hungarian ticket office clerk who sorted it all out for us. We got our refund. I was encouraged by this experience to keep working on my Hungarian. Transactional language is easy - until something goes wrong.

2. In the 1980s I spent many pleasurable holidays in Italy with my wife and two daughters. At the time I had decided to follow the BBC “Buongiorno Italia” course. I quickly reached the point where I felt fairly comfortable in using basic transactional language, so I put it to the test on our next holiday in Italy by ordering a meal in a restaurant for the four of us. The whole process went smoothly, with the waiter speaking clearly and slowly. When I had finished ordering, the waiter said in perfect English: “I like people who try. You can have half a litre of wine on the house.” The waiter had worked in a restaurant in England only a few miles from where we live. A side-note: Why, oh why, is the BBC cutting down on TV language courses for adults and putting so much effort into Web-based materials?

3. I was a student of German in the 1960s. As part of my university course I spent a period abroad at a German university. At the time I was by no means fluent in German, and always had to think carefully when constructing sentences with subordinate clauses in which the main verb fell at the end of the clause. I joined the university film club, watching German language films three times a week. Suddenly, after listening to many hours of spoken German, it seemed “normal” to me to put the verb at the end of the clause, and I began to utter complex sentences with confidence. The listening skill had transferred to the speaking skill, it seems. A breakthrough had been achieved, and I never looked back.

#From Chris: I still hang my head in embarassed shame when I think of my firt days in Germany for my intercalated year abroad. Working out in which order to visit the various departments to ensure the correct 'Aufenthaltsgenehmingung' was achieved before I was barred from my university residence, I visited the town hall.

Being only the second day there, it all seemed a fairly longwinded afffair, but optimistic as ever, I saw it all as a challenge - including getting the basics right like finding my way around the various departments and sections required. Searching for another, I blythely asked a passer-by which floor I needed and listening intently, registered the floor number and pressed the lift button to take me there, as the friendly local continued to chat. Within seconds alarm sirens were ringing and police with drawn hand guns were running everywhere. The chosen day was during the time the Bader-Meinhof Gruppe were coming to a sticky end and the authorities were expecting a backlash. Next, before my eyes appeared a shapely silk-stockinged pair of lower legs, evidently attached to a screaming and very scared women. The the moment of horror arrived - I'd pressed the NOTRUF button on a Paternoster Lift - the sort without doors where you just walk in and out as the lift moves slowly past your chosen floor. I'd never seen one before but the realisation was almost a physical blow. Panic and the sure belief that my linguisitic incompetences were such that I'd never be able to explain myself I nonchalantly left with the local German 'guide', who thankfully hadn't notice me pressing the button. Needless to say I read the print off the local paper for a couple of days in case someone had died of fright during all the panic - and set about learning to read all signs and notices with the utmost care.

PS any good German words for that moment of horrible Aufklärung?

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RE: Magic moments of language learning

I remember being on my year abroad in the middle of my French degree and waking up one morning to realise I had dreamt in French. I was so impressed with myself - even though I couldnt remember a thing about it.

It felt very much like learning how to drive a car - when you first start you are concentrating so much on what you're doing with your feet/hands etc. that you don't really enjoy the experience. After a while though you find that the things you first found difficult are happening naturally without any thought and - hey presto! you're driving!

Despite this "breakthrough" though I still, years later, find myself making the odd embarassing error.

On my French placement quite recently as part of my PGCE I was enthusing to my French colleagues about the standard of French Primary School Food and how terrible it seemed to be in the UK. I was getting rather carried away and found myself explaing that there were rather too many "préservatifs" in the meals!

The look on her face said it all. :plane

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I was enthusing to my French colleagues about the standard of French Primary School Food and how terrible it seemed to be in the UK. I was getting rather carried away and found myself explaing that there were rather too many "préservatifs" in the meals!

The look on her face said it all.

I have had one of the same kind, except I was at the receiving end and felt more embarrassed than my colleague who brushed the incident off in an amused manner.

In short, we were at the end of a long moderating day and had reverted to speaking French when this colleague started to talk about her son whose 'gland' wasn't functioning properly. I thought I was going to die of embarrassment for the poor lad who was at the height of puberty at the time. I couldn't quite get my head round the reasons why she would want us to know such intimate details about her son's shortcomings... Eventually realising by the look on my face that she meant 'glande' we laughed it off, yet I was left to explain in English what I had understood which was even more embarrassing, but my colleagues were impressed by the extent of my knowledge of anatomy vocab!!! :wacko: PHEW!

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Katherine writes about dreaming in French. I sometimes dream in German, especially when I am holidaying in a German-speaking country. Another strange phenomenon about language: I can usually remember the content of a conversaton that I have had with someone but cannot remember the language in which it took place. Obviously this only applies to situations where both of us can speak one another's language and habitually code-switch, often half-way through a conversation.

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Graham says

Katherine writes about dreaming in French. I sometimes dream in German, especially when I am holidaying in a German-speaking country.

The question of dreams and languages is one that is often asked by my students, as well as that of thinknig. They always wonder which language I do these in. Apart from very few occasions where it is obvious and the reasons for doing so are too - e.g. my Spanish exams are coming soon and I've been dreaming in Spanish a lot recently - I actually don't know what language I dream in anymore. I think that because I know 2 languages well and 2 others fairly well, I have lost the need to verbalise thoughts and only dream in concepts of language. All the same, during the long hours I spend in my car travelling to and back from work, it often happens that a thought occurs in my brain and if I need to word it out loud, it will come out in a variety of languages, admittedly French and English, but I have surprised myself recently blurting out to myself in Spanish, most evidently due to exam pressure, again!

I am sure that educational psychoanalysis (if that word exists) would explain the phenomenon of dreaming in a different language as an advanced stage of language mastery where your conscience does not command your brain to produce the language. It's like the brain is on auto-pilot! And it's a wonderful feeling because from then on language learning is accelerated.

Graham asks

1. A personal experience where you were struggling in a foreign language and would have benefited from knowing it better.

I have a little anecdote to relay to the forum. It will make the native English speakers laugh their heads off but at the time I didn't think it was funny at all. I was 19 and experiencing the real British life working as an au-pair in Bristol. To make my experiewnce even more British, I'd started seeing this lad who worked in a pub down the road. One night we were at his place, where, bless him, he'd got the candles out for a more romantic atmosphere. It got late and it was time to get some sleep. Goodie-two-shoes me thought 'we can't leave those candles burning, it may cause a fire'. So I thought long and hard about how I would ask politely if my friend wanted me to .... I got stuck, in French we say turn off (the light), so it must be blow with something after, yes, my teacher used to say that to signify the transition from one state to another you must use off. So, with a big grin on my face I asked, candidly:'Would you like me to blow off the candle?' Needless to say that the poor chap was rolling himself on the floor in complete stitches! I felt quite humiliated that he was making fun of me when I had spent so much grey matter thinking about it! Eventually he caught his breath and explained very calmly and matter-of-factly and we had a good giggle but at the time I wish I had known it meant FART. :ph34r:

It's all part of growing up!

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When I was around 15 I wrote the following to my German pen-friend:

"Ich habe einen Vogel" ("I have a bird").

I was trying to tell him that I had a pet budgerigar, but my little German dictionary did not contain that word.

When we met around a year later, He pointed out that the phrase I had written means "I am crazy" or "I have a screw loose".

But even when talking to other English native speakers we can get things wrong. As a student in Hamburg I went on a trip to Berlin with students from a number of different countries. A young American women was anxious about getting up in the morning in time for breakfast in the hostel in which we were staying, as she did not have an alarm clock. "That's OK", I said, "I have one. I'll knock you up in the morning." She raised her eyebrows in shock and said, "You'll do WHAT!" I only learned later that in North America "to knock someone up" means "to get someone pregnant". I wonder what she would have made of the old profession of "knocker up", i.e. people who went around the streets knocking street doors and making sure that workers get up in the morning in time for the early shift.

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Graham says:

But even when talking to other English native speakers we can get things wrong

Yes, I've had a similar experience with a Swiss girl speaking French who wanted to 'lancer un coup de fil' instead of 'donner un coup de fil' (to phone) which in my mind's eye looked like her whipping me with the phone wire!!!

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