Of Language Barriers And Sugar Substitutes
Tokmok Travel Blog› entry 2 of 2 › view all entries
February 6th, 2010 – by: alexmaerz
All I remember about this particular song is the melody and that it talked about a â€śVogel,â€ť a â€śbird.â€ť 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 stuffâ€¦. 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.
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 parentsâ€™ story was, however, different: Not knowing the languageďż˝"but highly willing to learn itďż˝"they struggled at levels I never thought I would know.
Or would I?!
Fifteen years later Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m struggling to learn, has little to no similarity to the languages Iâ€™m familiar with. The words are foreign, the sounds are alien, the alphabet looks like Russian, there are eleven vowels, yet itâ€™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 couldnâ€™t help laughing out loud the other day when I remembered something that my dad once said while venting out his language-learning frustrations: â€śNo sĂ© si alguna vez aprenderĂ© este idioma, pero de seguro que salgo adivino.
Today I had a funny and rewarding experience at â€śthe Narodnyi,â€ť 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, thereâ€™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 hadnâ€™t the slightest idea how to say artificial sweetener.
Before you attempt to anticipate to the facts and jump to conclusions, let me quickly tell you that Iâ€™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 zamyenitelâ€™ 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 didnâ€™t even have to repeat myself, and Iâ€™m sure she didnâ€™t think I sounded like an idiot as much as I did.
In a few more weeks, when I run out of zamyenitelâ€™ sakhara, Iâ€™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, â€śWhere sugar? Not sugar: Chemist!â€ť
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