Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fun with Language, Take 2

Earlier I wrote a blog about how much fun I have listening to Kazakhstani English. To be fair, though, I should follow that up with some examples of my own misadventures in speaking Kazakh or Russian.

Like the other day, when I confused my question words and, instead of asking the school cook what was inside the pie, I asked her who was inside the pie. I guess Sweeney Todd really got to me.

Or the time I confused the Kazakh words for holiday and country, and wished my host mother a “very merry country.”

Then there was one afternoon, when my host father, brother and I were drinking tea after we'd stopped waiting and given up hope that my host mom would come home before evening. We were munching on cookies in silence when my host brother said something in Kazakh that I thought sounded like, “I'll bet mom will walk through the door any minute now.” I replied, “That's what always happens.” I earned myself a strange look, and then my brother said something to my dad that sounded like, “I don't think she understood me. Please translate.” And so my host father explained in Russian, “He was just commenting on how, when nobody's talking, you can hear everyone chewing.” That's what always happens.

Another day, I was in the teachers' room and someone asked me if I taught the 11th graders. “No,” I replied, “I don't teach the old students.” But apparently in Kazakh they are “big” students, not “old,” because a fit of laughter ensued that lasted for at least 10 minutes as everyone repeated my phrase several times. As far as I could gather, my choice of words is most closely approximated in English as “old fart.”

And it turned out to be an even bigger joke than I thought, because that night at home my host mother, who wasn't even in the room to hear me, quoted me to my host father. Which means my “old fart” joke was apparently hilarious enough to be repeated later, to who knows how many people around the school.

More often than not, though, I have no idea that I've said anything strange. My only hint is when people stare at me strangely, which they do all the time. Then I wrack my brains to try to remember what I just said, but the problem is, I can only remember what I wanted to say, and the words that I used to get there are completely lost in the fog of my poor language skills.

The trouble is, as my Russian and Kazakh slowly improve, my English worsens in direct proportion. Often, I find myself unable to think of the word I need in English, but it pops right into my head in Kazakh or Russian. And so I use the foreign equivalent, which works just fine as long as the person I'm talking with also speaks that language. But sometimes this can be a little dangerous. Like the time I couldn't remember the word for “guest,” and so I used the Russian equivalent: “gost.” As in, “Oh, I'm just a gost here.”

Or another day, when I couldn't bring to mind the word “choir,” so I used the Russian “hor” and told my fellow English teachers, “I'm going to practice with my hor children now.” It was only as I was walking out of the room that I burst out laughing at the realization of what I'd just said. The other teachers, however, only chuckled politely, which let me understand that they didn't get the joke. I feel like there are only two natural responses to such a sentence: to laugh uproariously, like I did, or to chuckle awkwardly and with a disapproving glint in your eye, because, really, that is a terrible thing to say. I think it's probably best that they didn't understand, or that disapproving glint would definitely have judged my laughter.

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