Of Language Barriers And Sugar Substitutes

Tokmok Travel Blog

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I remember being a little boy and sitting at my grandma Emma’s feet while she sang one of her many German songs that she had learned when she was a little girl in Southern Argentina. Back then there was no internet and cable TV, therefore my knowledge of the world, foreign countries, and the existence of languages other than the one I spoke for that matter, was pretty much restricted to my immediate surroundings, which were by no means broad.

All I remember about this particular song is the melody and that it talked about a “Vogel,” a “bird.” I venture say that this was the first German word I learned. I found the fact fascinating that other people used different words to say stuff…. And that if I could learn the German word for bird, I could very well learn all the German words and talk German like the Germans.
I even composed a list of words, and the first entry was, you guessed it: Fóguel = pájaro�"It wasn’t until a few years later that I found out the correct spelling of the word.

So began my endless fascination with languages. Then came English, a universal language, which I learned quickly. Years later I had the privilege to move with my family to the United States, nearby Seattle, Washington. By then my English, although by and large theoretical, as most of my speaking and practice while learning it took place only twice a week at the language school, with my classmates, and for a couple of hours, was good enough for basic communication and to get by. My parents’ story was, however, different: Not knowing the language�"but highly willing to learn it�"they struggled at levels I never thought I would know.


Or would I?!

Fifteen years later I’m living in a country where the people speak Russian and Kyrgyz, and where English, German, and Spanish are virtually unknown languages. In addition, Russian, the particular language I’m struggling to learn, has little to no similarity to the languages I’m familiar with. The words are foreign, the sounds are alien, the alphabet looks like Russian, there are eleven vowels, yet it’s not surprising to find words with six or seven consonants and only one vowel somewhere in there. Ah, and people talk to you as if you were a native.... I couldn’t help laughing out loud the other day when I remembered something that my dad once said while venting out his language-learning frustrations: “No sé si alguna vez aprenderé este idioma, pero de seguro que salgo adivino.
” And those are precisely my thoughts right now: I’m not sure if I’ll ever learn Russian, but for sure I’ll get an honorary degree as an educated guesser.

Today I had a funny and rewarding experience at “the Narodnyi,” the local supermarket. I was buying the weekend supplies when I remembered I was out of honey (I use it to sweeten the tea and the coffee). I knew in which aisle the honey was, because this happened to be my second time around buying honey. And precisely because it was my second time around buying honey, I wanted to get some artificial sweetener in order to cut down on the carbs.

Artificial sweetener, there’s a challenge for you!

I had no idea where it was, what the package looked like, what the brand name was, and of course I hadn’t the slightest idea how to say artificial sweetener.
So here I am unconsciously walking toward this girl who works at the supermarket and who spoke neither of the languages I knew. By the time I realized that she had stopped what she was doing in order to give me her undivided attention, it dawned on me that I didn’t know what to say; I had no script; heck, I had no plan! It was too late to turn back; I would look like an idiot if I did�"not that I didn’t at the end of the story anyway. So in the second and a half that it took to make the final three steps to where she was, I envisioned and designed my strategy: I would open my mouth and let out any (pertinent) Russian words I knew to ask my question and convey my thoughts…

Before you attempt to anticipate to the facts and jump to conclusions, let me quickly tell you that I’m in bed writing these lines; next to my bed there is a small table, and standing on the table, in the middle, as a proud monolith, is the plastic with green letters bottle filled with pure, white, Russian artificial sweetener, or zamyenitel’ sakhara.


Needless to say that my rhetoric did not quite sound like that and that it was plagued with grammatical errors. But it worked. The girl understood what I meant on the first try; I didn’t even have to repeat myself, and I’m sure she didn’t think I sounded like an idiot as much as I did.

In a few more weeks, when I run out of zamyenitel’ sakhara, I’ll know exactly where to find it and even how to say it in Russian. But if for some reason, perhaps a combination of they changing the location of the artificial sweetener and I drawing a sudden blank, I can always ask the girls at the store using my original, fail-proof, result-seeking question: Gdye sakhar? Nyet sakhar: Khimik! Or literally, “Where sugar? Not sugar: Chemist!”
hammyyy says:
I love the way you commenced it. I loved the flow of the whole blog which remained interesting throughout, I loved the pictures complimenting words. I loved the concluding words with a sigh of relief that you'd find it whenever need be, without any troubles! Haha.. Very well written blog Ale. Loved it truly
Posted on: Feb 07, 2010
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photo by: londonstudent