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Communicating in other languages

February 4, 2016
By Joyce Schenk , Westfield Republican

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by languages. Even as a kid, the cadence and rhythm of another tongue drew my attention.

When I entered college, I encountered a different kind of language: the language of science.

Although I became a Medical Technologist, I started my college work in the basic pre-med program. Early in the semester, I became steeped in the complex vocabulary of bones and nerves, muscles and veins, "itises" and "isms." It was a whole new and challenging world of words.

And, early in my college days, I found a group of friends whose field of education was far different from mine. They were studying Modern Languages.

Although we clicked from the start, I often felt like an outsider. When my pals were working on their language skills, I learned first hand how totally excluded one can feel when surrounded by people speaking a different language.

In order to fit in, I listened closely until I picked up a few phrases. Unfortunately, my sole accomplishment in French was to master a sentence I would never use.

With carefully formed accent and cadence I managed to say, "I leave with the train at two o-clock."

My Spanish, however, became an important part of my college focus, since it was a required minor in my study plan.

So, for two years, I worked on speaking, reading and understanding Spanish.

In my Spanish class, each student was paired with a partner. It was my luck to draw one of the football jocks whose interest in the language was as great as his passion for ballet.


I recall one event (remembered with questionable accuracy from MANY years ago). We were assigned to demonstrate our grasp of this lilting language by having a conversation in front of the class.

I asked Mr. Football the standard question: "How are you?"

"? Como esta usted?"

His answer was supposed to be an equally standard response: "I am fine, thanks." In Spanish: "Yo estoy bien, gracias."

But, in a deep Texas drawl, Mr. Football's answer went something like this:

"Yoo-hoo ee-stay beans, grassy-ass."

I was sure we would both fail the class. But, in Texas, where football is king, the football team apparently had a special kind of blanket dispensation. We both passed.

In recent years, I've met a number of folks who spoke languages ranging from Russian and German to Italian and various Indian dialects.

In every case, it was a pleasure to listen to the music of their conversations in their mother tongue.

And, many times, I've been impressed by listening as two individuals from different parts of the world conversed. Though they didn't know each other's language, they were able to communicate comfortably in a third known to both.

For instance, my college friend, Jim, spent a summer in Quebec. When he came back, he told me his best friend during his stay was a Japanese student.

I asked how the two communicated.

Jim said both spoke Quebec's chosen language, French.

We Americans are fortunate that most of the world has adopted English as the prime language for doing business. Therefore, when we travel, we can usually find someone who can at least interpret what we need. Unfortunately, few of us feel called on to study other languages.

In fact, I heard a commenter talking about this very point recently.

He said, "Anyone who speaks three languages is called 'trilingual.'

"Anyone who speaks two languages is 'bilingual'.

"And anyone who speaks only one language is American."



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