Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

I am a Language Nerd :)

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It's true; I am a Language Nerd (LN) and proud of it. My mother will tell you that I have always been fascinated by words and word play. What I will tell you is stay away from my mother unless you want to hear a whole lot more than that....but I digress.
From the time I was very small my little ears would perk up at the sound of a new language and I would sit still trying to see if I could let the meaning of what I was hearing wash over me. Take the case of the lovely woman named Bruna who came to our house once a week to help my Mom with babysitting and household chores. I was probably a little older than 2, but not by much, and my mother returned home to have me speaking in Italian. I greeted her with a "Ciao Mama" and requested a glass of milk. My mother is not Italian (she's from Winnipeg for heaven's sake). For that matter, my father isn't Italian either. (Not that there is anything wrong with being Italian - it's just that we spoke English at home.)
Trying new languages on for size has always been fun for me. I have to admit that the results for passersby have been mixed. I studied modern languages at the University of Toronto and my German professor would look at me out of the corner of her eye when she asked me a question, somehow dreading what would come out of my mouth. You see, on occasion (ok...frequently) insteading of learning new vocabulary I would "German-ize" words, especially verbs, and it just about drove her crazy. My rationale was that I had a 60/40 shot at being correct...German is fairly predictable that way...so why not stay for last call at The Pub?
Before heading to the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 to work as a PA announcer, I decided I wanted to have some Mandarin phrases at my disposal. I wanted to be able to ask for things in restaurants, count from 1 - 1,000 for shopping (bargaining) purposes, say where I came from and be able to meet people and say something polite and appropriate. I went to classes for about 2 months before I left and was able to carry on a reasonable "cab" conversation; meaning I was able to go through my repertoire of phrases in the course of a taxi ride. The young people with whom I worked were very excited that I would go to this trouble and wanted to help. One of my favourites, Sissy (her English name) taught me how to say a word that meant amazing or fantastic. Between the end of work one day and the beginning of work the next, I trotted out my new term every chance I could and usually with the "thumbs up" sign for added emphasis. I didn't ever get the reaction I thought I should have, given the largesse of my compliment. I usually got that stare that says that people are replaying in their head what I said in order to try and figure out what I was trying to say and coming up blank. I asked Sissy the next day and she asked me to give her an example. Here's one, to one of the merchants at the Pearl Market: "I really like shopping here. It's AMAZING!!!!" (thumbs up and big smile from me - stunned look from shop keeper) Sissy started to laugh...what I had said apparently was: "I really like shopping here. It's GIRLY FAT!!!" (thumbs up and well, you know the rest.)
As clever as I thought I was, it maybe should have registered with me that every time I spoke Mandarin, I had one of my young colleagues springing to life at my side translating my Mandarin into Mandarin for the listener.
Thank goodness I am never armed, usually smiling and therefore perceived as harmless.
I could tell you about the time I confused breast for freckle in Spanish - but that is best left for another day.

3 comments

Okay, Pj, I'm back from Prague, and I have to tell you that the reports Czechs don't speak English is false. Everyone we met spoke at least basic conversational English, and the hotel and shop staff, and of course the tour guides, spoke fluently. So I didn't get to use much of my car/tape-learned Czech. Just good morning, good evening, thank you, good-bye-- that sort of thing-- and "zmrzlina"!-- ice-cream, which tastes a lot yummier than it sounds.
I highly recommend the city-- for lovers of architecture, art, partying, theatre, music, and literature. You can trace the footsteps of Franz Kafka-- where he was born, grew up, studied, worked, and wrote-- in an hour. He lived his whole life (apart from visits abroad), and wrote all his works within about a half-mile radius.
Now I'll have to start on Mandarin-- in preparation for the next trip. But I might go your route and take a language class rather than trying to learn by listening to tapes in the car...

Kudos to you, Pj, for attempting Mandarin-- "GIRLY FAT!!!" sounds pretty "fantastic" to me and I'm sure your efforts were much appreciated-- even if you got your tones crossed. My husband and I are planning a trip to China in January and I aim to spend a few months taking introductory Chinese by CD in the car. Right now I'm working on learning beginner Czech while driving-- in preparation for four days we'll be spending in Prague later this month. I know I must look
looney to fellow motorists who catch me making strange shapes with my mouth as I repeat after the CD teacher, trying to iterate words made mostly of consonants. But I don't care-- if I can manage to get my mouth around a few key phrases, that'll be good enough for me. So far, I can say a lot of single words-- and a few short sentences, like-- Hello, I'd like a white beer, please. Thing is-- I'm not a beer drinker.
Have you ever tried learning Welsh? Now that's a tongue for a language nerd!

Hi Elana! Look at you with the Czech in the car thing! I am impressed (even if your fellow motorists are not)! As for Welsh, I am with you! Too tricky for my tongue!! Have a great weekend! Cheers, Pj

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Pj Kwong

Pj Kwong is a figure skating expert and writer currently working for CBC Sports. Her first book, Taking the Ice: Success Stories from the World of Canadian Figure Skating (BookLand Press), will be in stores in September 2010.

Go to Pj Kwong’s Author Page