Archive for the ‘learning languages’ Category

learning the language

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

At this point, I think almost every Dutch person I know has said one of two things to me, upon finding out that I’ve started back up with Dutch language lessons; either “Oh, then we have to speak Dutch to you so that you can practice,” or else “Oh, that is hard for you because everyone here speaks English to you.” Either way, usually the next thing is that they turn to the nearest Dutch person and begin a conversation in Dutch. (Come to think of it, that is a much less polite thing to do if you’ve just said the second response.)

Either way, I think it’s kind of funny, because it’s plain to me that Dutch people see how much English is spoken here – noticing the unexpected – and don’t realize that there’s still plenty more Dutch spoken, plenty of opportunities for foreigners to hear and try to understand the language.

Yesterday, my friend Lieke and I went out for dinner and somehow managed to give the server the impression that I speak Dutch and Lieke speaks only English. It was pretty funny; I think that by the end Lieke was on the verge of saying “No, really! I’m Dutch! I’m Dutch!”

Language lessons are fascinating from a ‘how the brain works’ perspective.At the moment I’m getting to the point where I can understand a fair bit if I concentrate, and I can say a fair bit if I think about how to frame a sentence – but I can’t do boh at once, so I’m always answering Dutch with English, or giving a Dutch answer to something spoken in English. Luckily no one seems to mind, especially if I explain. I’m much more interested in understanding than I am in speaking; if I can understand what someone has said to or around me, it’s very rare that I can’t make myself understood in English. The other thing I find is that in lessons, there’s a point where my brain is full and we have to stop for a break (Ted found the same, when we took lessons together last time).

measures of fluency

Friday, November 20th, 2009

The other night, because Ted was away and I didn’t feel like cooking and did feel like greasy food, I went out and picked up some fast food for dinner. It occurred to me that that is the perfect measure for the difference in the difficulties I have with the Dutch and Mandarin languages: after one year in the Netherlands, I had just gotten to the point where I could place a complete order in Subway without having the person behind the counter switch to English; after two years here, I can just about place a complete order at McDonalds. And even then I can say the words but usually don’t understand what they’re asking me, even though I know the words for “what do you want to drink”, “here”, and “takeaway”. I have a feeling that I’m having a lot of conversations that go,

Me: “I want number four” (pointing to combos on menu).
Counter-person: “OK, do you want that for here or to go? (In Chinese)
Me: Coke, please.
CP: “You want Coke to drink? DO you want to super-size that?”
Me: “Take-away”.
CP: points to amount on cash-register, having given up. They’re always really nice about it, though. I think they appreciate that I’m at least trying.

Whereas, in case there’s anyone who hasn’t been to a Subway, there you have to tell them what kind of sandwich, what kind of bread, whether you want cheese, if you want it toasted, select from eight or ten vegetables, and then tell them which sauce and seasoning you want. We don’t eat at Subway much here.

Yesterday was also the first time I went to the post-office and was served by someone who didn’t speak any English. Fortunately the P.O. is English friendly – he had the word Registered written out, so he could just point to ask if I wanted things sent that way, and the registered mail form was in both languages. Fortunately also, I’d remembered to bring stamps so I could just show them to hm and say “I want [more of] these.” (“Wo yao tzige”) I did mess up in telling him how many I wanted, and had to apologize and correct myself, but overal I used a lot more Chinese than he used English so I count that as a win. (While not forgetting that I’m in his country.)

I really need to start a series of posts on what I’ll miss / what I’m looking forward to in moving back to the Netherlands. One thing I’m looking forward to is hving more people speaking better English and when they’re not, speaking something that I at lest halfway understand. On the other hand, Dutch coworkers speaking Dutch (in casual conversation, for instance at lunchtime) are not nearly as nice about translating for the clueless foreigner as Taiwanese coworkers are.

pretty sure he’s not

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

It’s common in Europe and Asia to see people wearing shirts with English words that don’t make much sense. However, I have just seen a new record for silliness: a young guy in our office today is wearing a sweatshirt that reads:

San Jose


State University

learning to say “ma ma”

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

On Friday night, after my return from the doctor, we had our first Chinese lesson finally. In an attempt to learn from previous experience, we’d been nagging HR here to get us started as soon as we arrived or even back before we left Eindhoven. No dice, mostly because we’re working with a whole new set of HR people. I guess you only get to learn from experience with people who have been along for it.

Since Ted was meeting me at home and we’d never been there before, we decided to take a taxi instead of driving. Now at least next time we’ll know what the place looks like and where to park. The facility is up in Tienmu, a neighborhood known for being home to lots of expats. (We chose not to live there because it owuld take much longer to get to rowing and to work.) It’s not nearly as nice as the one where we had our Dutch lessons; that one was cheerful and clean, with rooms about like small office conference rooms. This one was a rat warren of tiny rooms with a level of decor and dirt best described as Early Bus Station. Also, at least on of our two Dutch teachers had some training in linguistics; the woman we had Friday was definitely a competent teacher, but I don’t think she’s going to be able to answer some of my questions. She may not be our regular teacher though; that wasn’t entirely clear.

We didn’t really get to learn many new words Friday; instead we worked on some necessary basics, spending most of the time practicing repeating syllables with the different tones. There are four tones in Mandarin, and you probably already know that a different tone can change the meaning of a word. In one famous example, “Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma”, when pronounced with the correct tones, can mean “Does my mother yell at horses, or do horses yell at my mother?”. Could be worse; apparently Cantonese has eight tones. However, tones are not a completely foreign concept to English-speakers; just today I was reading an essay by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould that contained the following joke (fortunately I was able to find the essay online so I didn’t have to retype the whole thing:

One fine day, or so the legend proclaims, Joseph Stalin received a telegram from his exiled archrival, Leon Trotsky. Overjoyed by the apparent content, Stalin rounded up the citizenry of Moscow for an impromptu rally in Red Square. He then addressed the crowd below: “I have received the following message of contrition from Comrade Trotsky, who has obviously been using his Mexican retreat for beneficial reflection: `Comrade Stalin: You are right! I was wrong! You are the leader of the Russian people!'”

But as waves of involuntary applause rolled through the square, a Jewish tailor in the front row–Trotsky’s old school chum from yeshiva days–bravely mounted the platform, tapped Stalin on the shoulder, and took the microphone to address the crowd. “Excuse me, Comrade Stalin,” he said. “The words, you got them right; but the meaning, I’m not so sure.” Then the tailor read the telegram again, this time with the intended intonation of disgust and the rising inflection of inquiry: `”Comrade Stalin: You are right?? I was wrong?? You are the leader of the Russian people??'”

We’ll clearly need more practice; we can both repeat tones correctly, but I don’t think either of us can recognize them in conversation yet. The whole repeating thing would have been easier if I could talk much at that point without going off into a coughing fit. (The medicines have definitely helped with that, though I think Ted will agree that they’re making me a bit groggy and irritable.) After a while I realized I was just singing tones back to the teacher – it’s not hard to learn a song in a language you don’t understand – so I tried to pay more attention to reading them off the page. We’re working with a system called pinyin that is used to write Chinese words in the Roman alphabet, but for some stupid reason it doesn’t use all the letters as they’d be used in English or in any other language I know of – ‘x’ is used for a ‘ch’ sound, for example. It seems like it would have been a lot easier to just use the International Phonetic Alphabet!

We highjacked the lesson for the last half hour and got her to help us with some basics: we had her write the characters for some basic menu items like beef, chicken, shrimp, soup, and spicy, and had her teach us some taxi terms like “turn left”, turn right” and “stop here”. (Using the numbers to indicate tones, those are zuo3 zhuan3, yo4 zhuan3, zhe4li3 ting2, respectively.)

Afterward, we had dinner at the upscale department store down the street. The food was restaurant-level, a bit better than the usual food courts, and we had Thai food. Since lessons run 7-9 PM and we’ll be going right after work, we’ll probably get to try out all of the options. There’s also a branch there of Jason’s Marketplace, the same international-foods supermarket that’s in Taipei 101, and this one seems to have an even better selectino, so we’ll definitely be making regular stops for foods we miss.

On the way home, we had a Burmese taxi driver who spoke English, though we haven’t decided if that was a good thing. He told us about all his brothers and sisters who are doctors and engineers in the US, about his religion (1/2 Catholic, 1/2 Christian, 1/2 Taoist – we didn’t ask about his math, let alone his theology), and about US politics. He had two large dogs in the front seat with him, which is more wildlife in a taxi than we’ve seen since the driver with the bird. Oh, and he told us several times about how handsome Ted is, how beautiful I am, but that Ted is too skinny and I need to feed him more. With chicken soup, because that’s the best medicine for everything. And he told us that there’s a local saying that a woman who hasn’t had children is like a new car. I will very carefully not be asking if that’s really a saying here.

At least his driving was less erratic than his conversation!

Next entry: Danshui: a visit to Tamsui fort and Lover’s Bridge

the sounds of Dutch

Monday, March 5th, 2007

(I think it works. Maybe.)

A while back, Ted’s parents told us that some of his relatives were interested in hearing what the Dutch language sounds like. I’m trying something new here, which is both a technical and a linguistic challenge. The link below is a sound file of me reading the summary of our latest Dutch lesson. This lesson taught us the past perfect tense (which is apparently what Dutch speakers most often use even where English speakers use the simple past tense). Verbs are given a ge- prefix, which can make them even harder to pronounce. So if this works, what you are hearing is me trying to pronounce Dutch. I make no claims as to whether it’s what the words in question are actually supposed to sound like. (Also, don’t be surprised if it takes me a few tries to get the audio file working properly.)

Here’s the original:

Het is sondagavond. Het weekend is al weer voorbij. Karin Koenen belt haar vriendin Carolien Vogel om te kletsen over het weekend. Karin is gisteren met haar moeder naar de stad geweest. Ze hebben gezellig met z’n tweeën gewinkeld. Karin heeft een gat in haar hand maar toch heeft ze niets gekocht: haar moeder heeft een jas gekocht en Kaarin heeft schoenen gekregen. Ze hebben ook nog koffie gedronken bij cafe Bommel. Heel tovallig is Carolien daar zaterdag ook geweest. Zij heeft s’morgens eerst de krant gelezen. Daarna heeft ze getennist en nog iets gedronken in cafe Bommel. Op weg nar huis heeft Karin boodschappen gedaan want s’avonds had ze een etentje thuis. Haar collega Jeff Wilson en zijn vrouw Alice hebben bij haar gegeten. Ze heeft een visschotel met gebakken aardappelen en salade gemaakt. Het was lekker én gezellig. Carolien heeft een heel sportief weekend gehad. Tennissen, skeeleren in het Vondelpark en wandelen met haar zus en haar nichtje. Dan moet Karin plotseling ophangen want ze krijgt nog een andere lijn. Dat is Henk.

And a translation – I’ll put it in grammatic English, rather than try to translatie word-for-word:

It is Sunday evening. The weekend is nearly over. Karin Koenen calls her friend Carlien Vogel to chat about their weekends. Karin went to the city with her mother yesterday. The two of them had a pleasant time shopping together. Karin has a hole in her hand (that is, can’t hold on to money) but didn’t buy anything. Her mother bought a coat for herself and got Karin a pair of shoes. They also drank some coffie at Cafe Bommel. Coincidentally, Carolien was also there on Saterday. First, she read the newspaper that morning. Then she played tennis and had something to drink at Cafe Bommel. On the way home (from shopping) Karin did her grocery shopping, because she had company for dinner that evening. Her colleague Jeff Wilson and his wife Alice ate with her. She made a fish dish with fried potatoes and salad. It was delicious, and a cozy evening. Meanwhile, Carolien had a sporty weekend. Tennis, rollerblading in Vondel Park and walking with her sister and niece. Then Karin has to hang up, because Hank calls on another line.