Okay – so I admit it – I am NOT fluently bilingual. Far from it, in fact. So how did I come up with these lovely-sounding, French titles I posted in the last few weeks? It’s called Bing (or Google Translate, or Babel Fish, or – you get the idea, people…).
There are some, ummm, problems with having a machine translate something meaningful in one language into something equally meaningful in another language, of course. Humour is one. Apparently very hard to translate. Idioms are another.
I should have titled this post “Lost in Translation,” by the way. It seems all the stories that follow illustrate not really the computer’s but my own complete failure to communicate in other languages. Anyhow! About those idioms…
Some years ago, for reasons I won’t go into here, I used to spend a lot of time with Ottawa’s Spanish-Canadian community. Of course, with this came a certain amount of informal “Spanish Immersion.” One night I was at one of those community club dinner type events. A Frank Sinatra song came on. “Ahhh,” I said, turning smoothly to the elderly man seated next to me, “Viejos Ojos Azules.”
I got a completely bewildered look in return.
A chorus of “¿Qué?” soon shot round the dinner table, with an embarrassed me at its centre having to repeat my (innocent!) remark again and again. I was sincerely wishing I’d never opened my mouth to begin with, along with feeling increasingly frustrated at not being understood.
Finally a younger friend a few chairs away leaned forward. “Did you say Viejos Ojos Azules?” he shouted down. He started laughing. At last someone had figured out the mystery.
And – apparently - Frank Sinatra is not known as “Old Blue Eyes” in Spanish. That’s how I learned that informative tidbit. Who knew?
There’s no replacement for real, in the trenches, experience with a language. Studying it in a book (or on Google) is not enough. Relying on that kind of information can open you up to some really awkward mistakes when it’s time to really talk, or even listen.
Once upon a time I went to Spain. While there, I visited an elderly friend whom I knew as Quiquin. Quiquin met up with his friends, a motley group of other old-timers, everyday at a local café he had re-christened “Cheers.” And so – of course! – I tagged along.
One of the friends had decided that, since I was in fact a Canadian, I must be more fluent in French than in Spanish. This, as it turned out, was a bad assumption.
“Ça marche bien?” he asked me in greeting.
I quickly scanned my textbook memorized French for meaning. “Marche” – that means “walk“, right? We were doing lots of walking in Spain, but not really any with my old friend (who was in general sedentary and in poor-ish health), so “Pas avec Quiquin” I quickly answered.
The look of shock and concern that came across the man’s face let me know I’d messed my response up badly (I think we fixed it in Spanish, btw). It took several minutes to reassure him that, to my knowledge, Quiquin was not deathly ill. Shortly afterwards he turned to my more fluent friend and commented “I thought all Canadians were bilingual.”
Another evening (it may even have been at the same bar) I ambled up to the counter and asked the barkeep “¿Puedo pagar ahora?” (Can I pay you now?). Or that’s what I thought I said, at least. Apparently, it came out more like “¿Puedo pegar ahora?” (Can I hit you now?). Again, big laughs all round, big embarrassment for me.
I did feel like I got points for trying anyway. Locals appreciated my efforts when they compared me to the drunken British tourist slurring “I said vodka with fresh orange!!!” over and over in a louder and louder voice, as if shouting would replace the blank look on the server’s face with one of understanding. Ironically, a poster of a beautiful, juicy Valencia orange graced the wall right beside this brute’s head, adorned with the single word: “Naranja.”
So what’s most important in learning (and using) a new language? I think the answer is pronunciation. While it’s nice to have an extensive vocabulary, know all the tenses, and be able to read Shakespeare (or Molière, for that matter!), if your pronunciation is so terrible that you butcher every word that comes out, no one is going to want to talk to you. They just won’t be able to stand it. If, on the other hand, you can say a few things well and have mastered the basics, you may be in a better position to start really using the language. After all, you can always add new vocab as you go.
In my case – and as I have recently confirmed from Boo’s teacher that we are, in fact, not kicked out of French Immersion – I can learn new words along with my son, but I can’t help him that much with homework if I can’t pronounce, or at least learn to sound out, some of the basic stuff in the little books he brings home.
In honour of this idea, today’s Crazy List Lady presentation is…
A Super-Miniature Butterflymumma Guide to Pronouncing Things in French
- Toit (roof) is pronounced “toi.” The terminal “t” is silent. If, like me, you sent your 6 year-old to school pronouncing it as “toiT,” they probably got funny looks on the playground later.
- Coupe (cut) is pronounced “couP” – the “e” at the end of the word is your cue to pronounce that last consonant. And so, a coup d’état is pronounced a “coo” d’état. A “cooP” d’état means something like you cut up a country. [Don't ask me whether d'état is pronounced "day-TAH" or "day-TAT," though - I always hear English people saying it the second way. I'm wondering now if that's wrong...]
- The word courrament (fluently) as in “Je parle courrament le français” is pronounced “Cour-rah-MUNH.” The “ment” at the end of words like this is pronounced, but it should sound sort of like you have marbles in your cheeks. “Je veux improver mon français” is just wrong.
- An é (“e accent aigu”) at the end of a word gives the e a sound now. It’s sort of an “ay” sound.
- A ç (“c cédille”) changes the hard sound of a c (like K) to a soft sound (like S).
- There are other accents in French that change the sounds of letters, or – sometimes - differentiate between homonyms. You can read more about French accents here.
- The answer to the question of “les fraises” (the strawberries) is “fray-Z‘. The other “frais” (cold, as in the weather) is pronounced “fray.”
Okay – that’s enough of that. I’ll be getting calls from my fluently bilingual friends pointing out all my mistakes if I keep it up much longer!
While we’re on the topic of using Google for things you should perhaps NOT, here’s another common abuse (one that I am guilty of) that cannot be overlooked - playing doctor. Yup, I mean you, the one looking so studiously the other way, all the while still fiddling with that “really good!“ stethoscope you recently snagged at PlayValue Toy Superstore. Here’s yet more news: Reading all about it on Wikipedia is no substitute for the actual years of study, training, and real world experience your local GP has accumulated.
Remember, just because the information is out there doesn’t mean everyone will read it and understand it correctly. And mis-understanding info is likely worst than not having stumbled across it to begin with (that’s where that old saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” comes from, no?).
While I’m on the topic, a good example of reading studies or headlines and not understanding them or asking the right questions about them is this current fad of thinking yourself so far ahead of the doctor that you decline to have your child vaccinated. This is a really dangerous “Doctor Google” trend that bucks all the hard facts. If you are considering passing on vaccinations because you have heard that someone’s 18-month-old first showed symptoms of Autism or whatnot after receiving their 18-month vaccines, first consider the difference between a correlation and a causality. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. Here’s a link. You’re welcome.
I studied in a biochem program for 3 years, and then worked as a laboratory technician for 4 more – 7 years of Science Immersion in all. Still, I go cross-eyed as soon as our doctor uses any of the terminology of anatomy (lateral, dorsal, or medial even) or talks at all about pharmacology. It doesn’t help that he (probably correctly) assumes that I should know this stuff.
If all that training and education doesn’t guarantee me understanding this stuff, heaven help all those folks with a less science-y education! Yet we’re all flocking to Doctor Google in hoards these days.
When I was rightly able to diagnose myself (via Google) with Objective Positional Vertigo last spring, that self-diagnosis kept me from going to the hospital to get the help I needed for a whole week. Ultimately, I still needed a doctor to (literally) put my head back on straight, correct diagnosis or no. Thanks to Google, it took me about an extra 6 days to cave in and go see one.
This time around, I’m suspecting it’s (yuck!) bacterial pneumonia I am fighting. But a half-day of internet looking still hasn’t informed me whether I’ll suddenly be well enough to turn pages at Uncle Pierre-Paul’s Ponticello concert this weekend (I want to, I want to, I WANT TO!!!). Instead I learned that I should rest, treat my fever, stay hydrated, and take something for my cough if it’s interferring with breathing. I’m guessing I’ll STILL need antibiotics to get well, though. Google doesn’t prescribe those… yet (I shudder to imagine whether this day is, in fact, coming).
Google ALSO didn’t tell me whether it’s really pneumonia, or actually just bronchitis, maybe tuberculosis (probably not), or simply my asthma acting up. I’ll need the real doctor to sort that out too.
And, so, tomorrow, it’s off to the (real) doctor I’ll go again. No more Dr. Google for me. I swear, I swear, I swear.
Okay, people, ‘fess up, what do YOU ALL use the internet for that’s really not the best??? Or was there, perhaps, a situation when you relied on book learning when only real world experience would do? I’m dying to hear about it.
My kid’s still in French Immersion, btw. Did I mention? All that worry for nothing – Whew! :)
All for now,