Friday, August 27, 2010

Language, the final frontier

Austria one week. Italy next week. Back to Dresden for a couple of weeks before coming to Toronto. US next, with a Mexico trip coming up. At which point all the different languages get mixed up in your head?

It is mostly my fault. I envy people who can speak multiple languages, but I am too lazy to learn new ones. I joined a beginners German course after moving to Dresden, and even the presence of a couple of Russian beauties were not enough sustain my interest.

I realized I could survive with pointing at stuff in stores and restaurants, and for everything else, there was Google translator. Not that it was perfect, and worse, it is non-commutative. So translating a phrase from English to German, and then translating back to English would probably not give you the original phrase back. A while back I was laughing like crazy in my office, reading a (Google translated) mail from our chair admonish the students for not attending a seminar, and asking where did they all die.

Then there is my friend, who made a complete mockery of one of my hard(ly) learned German phrases. "Ich habe eine fragen" means I have a question, and its really useful to get the attention, before I can start rambling in English. She thought it sounded for like "itch hobe ei frog er" (with apologies to my non-Bengali speaking readers). Or this Indian guy, first coming to German was utterly confused why every female was named "frau" (equivalent of Ms.) or why everyone was asking him to choose ("tschüss", means bye).

However German is generally not so bad, you mostly get what is spelled. In French, you mostly do not get what is spelled, most letters are silent. And in Italian, no matter what is is, it needs to be accompanied by animated gestures. And then there are subtle differences too. I found out that there is no difference between "create" and "do" in German, everything is "made" You make babies as well as exercises. However they do have different words for free (indeed free) seats and free (costless) pizza. And German sentences can end with "or", which is apparently a polite way of asking someone, if you want to go to the movie "or (not)"?

Amusing, yes. But intimidating too. I walked upto a bus ticket counter in Toronto and realized I can actually use a complete English sentence.

Only if everyone spoke the same language.