Friday, October 27, 2006

Language Barrier

I'm crappy -- CRAPPY -- with foreign languages. There's nothing left of my childhood German or college French. Repeated attempts to learn Czech have gone nowhere. As you can imagine, this is harmful on trips. I go in PROMISING myself I'll attempt to converse in the local language, but it rapidly degenerates into pidgin Czenglish, before the eye-rolling local says "look, buddy, I speak English -- save yourself the pain."

Nonetheless, I can at least recognize certain patterns and words, and end up communicating just fine despite the language barrier, particularly in the Slavic world. Even in Albania, the Berlitz pocket phrasebook, pointing, hand signals and the occasional memorized phrase got me through just fine.

Then I went to Russia.

Dunno what it says, but it looks serious

I've never felt as disoriented and lost as I did when trying to read Russian signs. Even when I know better, I see "P" and I think "P." I see "B" and I think "B." Cyrillic and I were just not friends. I tried to think of it as a code, but that only brought me limited success. With unfamiliar letters and familiar letters used for unfamiliar purposes, I couldn't recognize patterns. You know those illiteracy commercials with a bunch of gibberish that say something to the effect of, "imagine if the world looked like this to you"? I seriously understood that feeling.

Context, obviously, helped with some things:

"Make a run for the border"

and eventually, by the end of the trip, I was doing better -- I was very proud when I figured out that "PECTOPAH" (roughly) was "restaurant," and "bAP" was "bar." When I saw a sign that looked roughly like "CYBERMAPKT" and immediately thought "supermarket," I was so impressed by myself that I bragged about it to MD. She wasn't quite as impressed.


Nanuk of the North said...

I have a miniscule knowledge of Russian so I am fascinated by that MacDonald's sign. It seems to say "Greek Mac at MacDonald's". I'm certain it's not a Big Mac for 2 reasons: a) there's a slice of tomato in the picture and Big Macs are of course tomatoless worldwide and b) wouldn't a Big Mac be a bolshoi Mac? That definitely doesn't say bolshoi, as that is one of the very few words I can recognize. What's a Greek Mac?

gsdgsd13 said...

Interesting -- I just sort of automatically assumed "Big Mac," but yeah, you're right. Some research turns up this:

Greek Mac! The world's a fascinating place.

Nanuk of the North said...

Now I WANT a Greek Mac!

Jes Gőlbez said...

Well, I'm the opposite of you in terms of picking up languages, but I feel the same pain with Russian. Decoding the damn stuff takes a hella long time and it's hard to get the P/R thing out of your head.

You ought to go to Slovensko some time. From all accounts, the locals (especially outside of Bslava) are much more appreciative of yokels trying to use their language. Of course, fewer of them speak English so you might end up marrying a goat if you aren't careful

gsdgsd13 said...

I'd love to get over to Slovakia -- a pretty heavy traveler I knew back in Colorado (diplomat's kid) said that it was the prettiest place he'd ever seen.

In Croatia, just something like ordering coffee in Croatian prompted the entire restaurant staff to come outside, celebrate the American who spoke some Croatian, buy me shots of slivovice, etc.

Doogie said...




"Working entrance"


Genitive case of "immediate help" - the Russian term for an ambulance.

Dunno what A/M stands for, but there's a rough translation for you. Also, the road signs are for Liteyny Prospekt ("Foundry Avenue"), Liteyny Bridge, and Vladimirsky Prospekt.

gsdgsd13 said...

Hey, thanks, Doogie. So sounds like it was an ambulance entrance, I guess? Probably not good that I was standing in front of it for a while, staring blankly.

Tomm said...

hey, hope you will improve your czech again and come to visit prague! ;) in the other hand, czech must be terribly difficult for non-native speaker, but i guess you got some knowledge, when you mentioned "repeated attempts to learn czech" :)

Doogie said...

You're welcome. I need all the practice I can get.