Friday, July 13, 2012

Learning English


Children are the best at learning a language. They’re actually born with a “grammar grid” already laid down. They are very clear that if one little long-tailed creature is a mouse, two are mouses. Just ask them. And it doesn't matter what the language is, they’ll learn it without any effort.
            My friends in Turkey have two daughters. Sofia, their mother speaks Flemish to them, Aydin, their father speaks Turkish. The girls are fluent in both languages. However, when the parents want to speak privately, they use English. One afternoon, when Aksel was bout four, they were driving home after a day of picnicking and having fun. Sofia peeked into the back seat and then whispered in English to Aydin, “I think Aksel is falling asleep.”
            A small voice from the back seat piped up, “I am not falling asleep.” Children. Little language-learning sponges. 
But English is a complicated language, and not easy to learn. It’s a polyglot with rules from many different countries. And pronunciation can be a real problem. One of the tutors I hired at my learning center was a young doctoral candidate at Fuller Seminary. He’d grown up in the heart of Africa, the son of missionary doctors and all of his schooling had been by correspondence. When he finally got to the states, a freshman at Princeton, he took his first psychology course. He was delighted, for he’d been reading the subject for years. He told me that in his first psych class, in answering a question, he said, “Dr. Frude,” much to the delight of the professor and entire class. He’d never heard the namc Freud pronounced. I empathized, for I’d had a similar experience. My word was “scintillating.” I’d read it and loved it. It so perfectly sounded like what it felt like. I was in college when I finally had a chance to use it. “It was ‘skintilating’,” I said. My friends thought I was being funny and imitated me. Months later, I found out the truth and I blush to this day with embarrassment.  
           Some years ago, I spent ten days on a Turkish gulet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulet) sailing the Mediterranean. The word "turquoise" comes to mind when I think of that sea. There were twelve of us, including the guide, captain and crew. My guide Jimmie was fluent in English. It was the idioms that gave him trouble. We were discussing possible plans for the afternoon. Finally, he sighed. “We will have to play it by the ears.”
            But my favorite learning English comes from our friend Arthur’s father. He was a successful music-loving attorney in Germany. His wife had a Ph.D. in psychology. His father taught ancient Greek and Latin at a prestigious university. They all spoke several languages, but not English.
            The Nazis had taken hold and Jews were being rounded up. Arthur knew they were on the list and so one evening he gathered his family and they began their escape. After a number of harrowing episodes, with only the clothes they wore, they ended up in New York. And that’s where my husband Dick met Arthur. No longer practicing law, Arthur was working as a DJ for the classical radio station. Dick and Arthur became fast friends. Arthur and his family had adjusted quite nicely, but still Arthur was often depressed over what was happening in his homeland. Whenever that dark funk descended, Dick took Arthur out for an expensive lunch. Over exquisitely prepared dishes and relaxed conversations, Arthur’s good humor always returned.
            Arthur and his wife became proficient in English. Not so Arthur’s father. He studied faithfully, but never was able to get out of his dictionary. One lunch day, Arthur brought a slip of paper to show Dick. It seems that the custom in their family was to place clothes that needed to be dry cleaned on a chair in the kitchen. Arthur slid the note across the table to Dick. It had been pinned to his father’s clothes. “Please constipate the hole in the trousers.” English! What a bother!

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