Thursday, December 04, 2008

Language – Living, Learning, Loving

Bonjour, Moi, Hej, Olá – Hello! Every time I travel to a new country, I’m continually amazed by how languages can be so distinct from one another. There are always some similarities, but it’s the differences that make them unique.

Growing up in a bilingual country like Canada, learning French was mandatory upon reaching elementary school. From grades 4 to 12 I studied the language on almost a daily basis and decided to continue with it for 2 years at the University of Washington. I don’t consider myself fluent, but if someone were to address to me in French, I would have a pretty good understanding of what they were saying. Speaking however, is a different beast. I’d have no problem asking questions, finding out directions or stating the obvious. But holding a serious conversation? That’s where it gets tough. It’s funny how quickly a language leaves you when you are not surrounded by it everyday. I suppose you could compare it to a sport like basketball. If you haven’t played for months or years at a time and finally pick up a ball to shoot, you’ll still have the skills – but they won’t be a sharp as they once were (unless of course you put in the time to practice.) If I could go back and do one thing differently, it would probably be having my parents enroll me French immersion at a young age. I wish I was fluent as French is a beautiful language.

That being said, my limited skills in French helped me quite a bit while I was in Sweden. Oddly, I found the language fairly easy to follow and picked the vocabulary up at a pretty good clip (though my accent murdered the language and was never on par.) Swedish seems to be a strange mix between English, French and something else. It was bizarre; teammates would be conversing in the locker room when suddenly, I’d cut in and say “I have a pen you can use.” Not only did I shock myself, but the girls would stop and stare – not comprehending how someone who had spent a little more than a month in a new country had understood what they were talking about. Personally, I thought it was a pretty good party trick…

Finland was a completely different story however. I couldn’t give you a phrase to repeat if my life depended on it. Finnish is an extremely difficult language to speak and understand. It’s like nothing I have ever heard before and comes across sounding like a robotic monotone. No disrespect to the language or country, but Finnish was nothing more than glorified gibberish and a strange slurring of words. (Remember, they do like their vodka there! ☺) This strange sounding language may be related to the fact that the Finnish use vowels like they’re going out of style, and love to pair up consonants. The majority of words are a minimum of 9 letters long with 2 a’s, i’s or u’s sitting together in a row not being uncommon. (Some examples of this confusing language: jääkiekko lätkä – ice hockey, myrkynvihreä – the color green and my personal favorite hyväntekeväisyysjuhlat – meaning gala. Seriously. I dare you to pronounce any of these words.) I remember one day Liz, Charlee and I were walking home from the supermarket when we came across a sign with a 25-letter word. 25 letters! Want to know what it meant? Bank. 25 letters to let the consumer know that the building they were walking into was the bank. Crazy! I wish I could tell you I learned simple phrases so I could ask how much something was or which way to the bathroom, but I didn’t. I lived in Finland for 5 months and was only able to pick up simple words like “moi” (prounounced like boy with an m, meaning hello), hyvää perse (who-va per-say, meaning nice ass ☺), pallo (ball), tyttö (two-ta, meaning girl), kiitos (key-toes, meaning thank you) and a couple of swear words. Beyond that, I draw a blank. If I ever return to Finland, I’d be as confused as the next person trying to decipher the language.

Arriving in Portugal, I figured I would have an easy time picking up the language. Knowing Portuguese is a language similar to Spanish, I decided it couldn’t be that tough. Even though I’ve never really been around the Spanish language – how hard could it be? Most of my American friends have a fairly good understanding of it and have been known to incorporate words such as: “de nada,” “amanhã,” “una más,” etc. into their everyday vocabulary. I had even found myself saying “hola” to my friend Kelly everytime she came home from gymnastics practice. Well, it looks like I set myself up for failure. Portuguese is a language that is spoken very rapidly with a lot of nasally and phlegm-y sounding words (you know, the noise you make with your throat when there is something in it, and/or you’re trying to get something out of it? That’s the noise I’m talking about.) Additionally, enunciation is extreme and the language is loud. When others around me are speaking, I almost feel as though they are yelling at each other. It can be pretty entertaining. I’ll sit there watching, smiling because I have no idea what’s being said. For all I know, my teammate Nadia could be making fun of my mother to others in the room while I just sit there grinning like an idiot. It kind of makes you feel like a powerless child. I am however making an effort to learn. I’ve picked up essentials like “olá” (hello), “queria” (kee-ree-a, meaning I would like), “quanto” (how much), “fala inglês” (do you speak English?), “obrigada” (thank you) and “boa noyte” (good evening) among others. More will come, but right now, the majority of it is going in one ear and out the other.

Thinking about all this, if there has been one think I’ve learned during my travels, it’s that no matter what country you are from, and what language you speak, there is always some way to communicate. That being said, you have to be willing to make the effort. Personally, I think it’s extremely ignorant when someone is a visitor to another country and automatically assumes that the person they’re about to speak to can speak/understand English. I believe that when you’re guest in another country, you should be the one trying to assimilate. It shouldn’t be the other way around. It’s rude to think that no matter where you are in the world a person will understand you – even though they might. In my experience, by making an effort to try and speak the native language, you’ve already made a friend. Even if you butcher the language, read it from a phrase book or pronounce words in ways they never knew existed, it means something because you tried. Often the person will chuckle and respond in English while smiling. The fact that you made an attempt is meaningful. I’ve had the price of products I was shopping for decrease 50% because I tried to speak in the native language – true story.

Through my life experiences and travel, I’ve found that majoring in Communication was the perfect degree for me. I love communication and I love meeting new people, conversing with strangers (well, the ones that look friendly…) and making new friends. I’ve learned so much more about this field by getting out of my comfort zone and striking up conversations with people from all walks of life. Whether I’m in Canada, America or Europe - there is always a way to exchange ideas, feelings, thoughts, wants and needs. Body language can make or break a potential conversation; hand gestures if used in a non-threatening way can display what you’re looking for or where you want to go. Smiling with your eyes often breaks down barriers. You also have to be willing to learn as well as willing to make concessions. People sometimes don’t realize how far a smile will go. Every so often it can even break down the grumpiest of old men who don’t speak a word of English. I like to test this theory by walking by with a big smile on my face and saying “bom dia” (good morning). Seeing the twitch of his mouth curve upwards makes me feel as though I’ve accomplished something.

Many native Madeirans speak English well enough that any pressing questions I’ve had can be answered. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that Madeira is a very touristy island and English is a useful skill. However, there are always exceptions. A few of my teammates speak very little English, making it difficult to communicate at times. Nevertheless, we always find a way to understand each other with a smile. What’s hilarious to me however is that these same teammates who can barely speak a word of English, can recite every Tupac song or sing the newest Beyonce word for word when it comes on the radio! Ah, the power of music…

My Portu-English and handy Portuguese phrasebook will continue to be my best friends for now by helping me along until and I feel comfortable enough to leave them at home. Hopefully by then, I’ll be confident enough to attempt speaking this foreign language without aid…

Basketball update: we lost 68-61 last week at Vagos (near Porto.) We shot terribly and shouldn’t have given up this game. Up 15 in the first half, we hit a rough patch in the 2nd and were never able to recover. It’s probably worth mentioning that this was the coldest, ghetto-est gym I have ever played in. I’m not joking when I say there was no heating and we were playing in 2°C (35°F) weather. It was like we were outside for a football game or something. I could see my breath when I paused on the court and was shivering during timeouts – where I put on a puffy jacket to keep warm. You could literally see the steam rising from our skin. The air burned my lungs when I was running down the court, making it hard to catch a breath. Half the time I couldn’t feel my fingers. You know when NBA players blow in their hands to look cool? Well almost my whole team was doing this out of necessity to keep circulation flowing. I’ll blame my cold (pun intended) shooting percentage on this, even though I realize the opposing team had to deal with the same conditions (however, they do practice and play in this gym on a daily basis.) I finished with 11pts and 9rbs. Not a very good outing for me. I expect more from myself, especially because of the skill level of this league. Apparently a lot of the gyms on the mainland are like this, which is not something to look forward to. How can it be legal? Players could get sick! I’ve never played basketball in conditions like this before. I was thinking of investing in some under amour to keep my extremities warm – but you aren’t allowed long sleeves under your jersey. Great, I guess I’ll just have to bring a canister full of hot chocolate to keep me warm next time…



J said...

Seriously, if you even mention Under Armour ever again, we're not friends anymore.

We've got some good cold weather, moisture wicking stuff. You can always cut the mock turtleneck and the sleeves / legs off.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Breanne. As usual, I throughly enjoyed it. And you are so right in your accessment of using English versus trying to use the local languages. Very insightful. I believe, at a minimum, visitors should learn the courtesy words, please, thank you, excuse me, etc.

Quite delightful as well. I play that hello/smiling game with people in elevators sometimes. Smiles are definitely contagious in any language. And you taught me some Finnish in spite of your protestations about the language. Especially the very important phrase, 'hyvaa perse'.

Jogar bem, se divertir, e continuar escrevendo, mea amiga,


Anonymous said...

Hey Bre! You are such the great writer. I love how you write; making me feel as if I am actually there. That's a skill that many do not have.

While stationed in Germany, I grew to love it while others had a different experience. The difference is as you have said. When you attempt to speak the host country's language, while conversing with natives of that country you come away with a better experience, because they see your respect for them. It's really all about respect.

When you sit on a bus and here people conversing in a language other than yours, you can't help but feel that they may be talking about you. You think it’s rude of them to speak in a language other than English. Well, it’s the same in other countries as well. When we go abroad and make no attempt to assimilate, we are looked at as arrogant and condescending to the natives. Even a small attempt conveys much respect, which the natives are then more than happy to reciprocate. You've learned quickly what most military families have failed to learn while I was stationed in Germany; that we must be respectful if we are to receive respect in return.

I've never played organized ball, but whenever I've played in pick-up games outside on cold fall days in the Pacific Northwest, there have been tricks I have picked up to keep my game consistent. Rely heavily on Defense! Defense is played more often than offense, so use this time to warm up. Get more animated than you would be otherwise. While you guys built that huge lead earlier on in the game, the other team remained warm, while you guys got colder an allowed the environment to dictate your game.

Never give up on defense and never give in to that fools gold of a big lead. Play more aggressively on defense when the elements are rough, this will at least keep your game consistent, because you are remaining warmed up.

The cold may at times dictate your offense, but it should never dictate your defense. Relay that to your teammates when you begin to see the effects of the cold play on their heads.

Have a great week buddy :-)))))


Melissa Erickson said...

"Smile with your eyes"...that is sooo Tyra Banks :)

Anonymous said...


The Times said today that Portugal is the poorest country in the EU and getting poorer with this current recession. They said many people make less than $500 a month and pay the same prices for non local items as the rest of the EU. Probably why they don't spend much money on gyms.