October 11, 2008

pick up linguistix

This is the wealthiest country I've ever been in where packs of feral dogs still prowl the downtown streets.

Any symbolism is left as an exercise for the reader.

I checked into tonight's hotel entirely in Spanish, which isn't that impressive, except that five days ago I would have been totally incapable of doing so. It's amazing how language immersion cues the brain; I think pretty much everything I picked up in Peru and Bolivia five years ago has returned. (Which, um, really isn't saying much, but still.)

Spanish-speaking countries are frustrating. It's close enough to French and/or English that I can generally get most of the gist of signs, placards, museum writeups, etc, but when they go on for more than a paragraph the effort gets really mentally wearing - I actually got a headache figuring out a long historical explanation written on a wall in Cartagena's Palacio de la Inquisicion (sic?) yesterday. And in person, sheesh - until today, at least, they might as well have been speaking Uzbeki.

I once wrote that language barrier is a misleading term; more accurate would be to say "language stupidifier." I am effectively a mentally damaged idiot. And you know what, that's no fun at all.

Places where the language is entirely foreign are, ironically, less frustrating. After the first couple of days in Russia I taught myself to convert Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, letter-by-letter, and then it became a game to try and find words that made some kind of sense when so converted. Though there at least the sounds made sense. In Omsk we bought a ticket to Krasnoyarsk from a woman who spoke no English with the aid of patience, a sense of humour, my Rough Guide phrase book - and the ability to convert written phrases to recognizable sounds, at least roughly. An ability you kind of take for granted until you find yourself in, say, China.

Which was the first country I ever really travelled to, and in 1997 at that - before the Internet - which, in retrospect, was kind of crazy. Maybe in a good way. I still feel a fierce nostalgia when I remember my awkward, pudgy, undersocialized self sitting on Muni buses or BART trains late at night, probably going to or from another repertory movie theatre (or maybe Fiddler's Green to play Shadowrun), listening to basic Chinese language lessons I had bought a few months in advance of the trip. On cassettes, no less. Cassettes. Ah, those were the days. Thank God they're over.

In 1998 my French was awful, I'd studied it for all of four years in high school, but it was enough to navigate - albeit clumsily - around French-speaking West Africa by myself when need be. Nowadays it's much improved, and on good days, in quiet places, and with Europeans, or others who speak it as a second language, I can have actual conversations in the language - although I regularly make horrific comprehension or grammatical errors, and I lean towards the "I don't know the right word for this so I will use twenty words instead" school of logorrhea.

(I wouldn't want to try it right now, though; I feel like I only have one second-language slot in my brain, and right now my truly miniscule pidgin Spanish is trying to occupy that space. Maybe I need a new motherboard.)

Weirdest of all is travelling in developing countries where they speak really confusing dialects of English, as in India, Nigeria, or Glasgow. Of the three the Indian English is easiest to understand. There's an amazing spectrum of fluency there, from perfect to broken, which seems, oddly, to be only loosely tied to the economic spectrum. (I got dissed on BoingBoing by some Indian guy who complained because broken English was spoken by an Indian character early in Invisible Armies, and claimed that that would never happen because everyone there speaks fluent English. If so, many of them hide it well.) I do love the flowing, archaically formal English of the Indian newspapers - "The miscreants absconded with their ill-gotten gains" and the like - though I'm told that sadly, that's on the wane.

I sometimes feel guilty about being monolingual (OK, fine, 1.5-lingual) when I spent three years living in Montreal and three months living in Paris and so many of my friends are bi-, tri-, or in one case, octolingual - but hey, is it my fault so much of the rest of the world has adjusted to English's linguistic hegemony? Also, when I found that in those periods when I put a lot of effort into learning French, my written English suffered, and, y'know, it is my livelihood.

Anyway, another couple of generations and it will be everybody's second language, for want of any better candidates. (Assuming technology hasn't obviated the need by then.) Or, more accurately, everyone will think they speak English as a second language ... but they still won't understand each other.

Anyway, my point is -

Oh, right. I don't have one. I'm just writing up where my thoughts took me on the five-hour bus ride to Santa Marta. Mark Twain would presumably be pleased.


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