Language Learning

8 Jul

You don’t quite feel the weight of burden of not speaking a local language until you’re walking down the street in a country that is not your own—and when realize that, despite whatever common heritage you might share with people in the area, that you don’t quite sound like one of them.

For someone who easily blends into white, middle class society in the U.S., that can at first be disconcerting.

Even when I was studying in England, for example, I knew that my style of dress was just a half-step off from the latest British trends, and while a vast majority of people wouldn’t think twice, there were a few who could probably pick me out as an American from the crowd. But when I opened my mouth? In an instant, my American accent—which I never would have described as thick until I realized how very American it was—gave me away.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. I am an American. And everyone has an accent, so to speak. No one grows up in a void, speaking like a robot. In fact, that would be even weirder than having a regional accent.

So, while my American accent—specifically, northeastern American accent—might be thick, I am glad that, in a country like Slovenia where the native language is not English, my voice is at least clear and comprehensible. After all, most of the media, like films and TV shows that people in countries like Slovenia (which has a small number of native Slovenian speakers) consume is in English. Most of it is in American English. Their movie making resources simply can’t compare to high-budget Hollywood productions that are popular worldwide.

Movies and TV shows might just be the most popular American exports, I’ve discovered, even if people tend to illegally download them.

But in Slovenia—unlike in nearby Germany—movies and TV shows are generally subtitled rather than dubbed. That means that even if someone doesn’t really understand English too well, they are quite used to hearing an American accent. It’s often easier to imitate for this reason alone.

Imitation aside, language is the first indicator that you are different: whether it’s an accent or regional dialect that gives you away.

Even within the Slovenian language, there are around 50 dialects within the country of 2 million, and it’s easy to tell where someone is from based on the way they pronounce their vowels, which words they shorten and how they do so, or which slang words they use. For example, the traditional: “Kako si?” meaning “How are you?” is pronounced correctly in Ljubljana, but said “Kak si?” in the second biggest city, Maribor, and “Kok si?” in the smaller city of Kočevje. The different might seem small, but it completely changes pronunciation.

Which brings me to my own pronunciations, both in English and Slovenian. While I’m proud to have passed an exam of basic fluency, after months of putting in long hours of studying, I carry a distinct accent into my Slovenian. If I’m lucky, people think I’m from a bizarre corner of Slovenia they’ve never been to. Otherwise, they know I’m a second-language speaker.

I’ve heard that in some other European countries, language learners are often discouraged by impolite remarks by locals, after butchering the language. Here, however, there is no prejudice against language learners—at least not that I’ve seen. All language learners butcher the new language they’re learning at first. But I’ve never seen people more encouraging or enthusiastic as when I surprise them by switching to my fast-paced Slovenian. (My motto: even if you making errors, just try to make them quickly and move on so that people forget them faster—and you sound more confident than pausing and saying, “um…”).

Even back in October, when I’d open my mouth and let out a doozy of a sentence, waiters and waitresses at the local cafes seemed thrilled—even though almost all of them speak good conversational English.

“I’m learning Slovenian,” I’d tell them in Slovenian. “Can we please speak in Slovenian?”

Usually they’ll smile, correct the case ending which I inevitably messed up at least once or twice in my order, and then tell me I’m doing such a good job—and that they’re impressed that I am learning such a small language, and one that is so difficult to master, at that.

Recently, however, the tables were turned.

At the central post office in Ljubljana, I was standing in line behind a non-native English speaker who was trying, in broken English, to buy stamps.

“Stamp, stamp,” she kept repeating. “Where can I mail?”

I quickly saw that she was trying to figure out where to put her postcards when she’d affixed the stamp she was trying to buy. But she must have met one of the few non-English speakers in Ljubljana behind the counter because no progress was being made.

In an instant, the mail clerk realized that I was following the conversation—on both sides. She turned to me.

“How many stamps are you trying to buy?” I asked the woman.

“Three,” she said.

“Ona bi rada nakupila tre znamke,” I said, with my non-Slovenian accent and probably with grammar mistakes.

“Ah, v redu,” the mail clerk said, relieved, reaching for the stamps.

And for a brief moment, my accent didn’t seem to matter.

That, after all, is the goal of learning a language: to be able to communicate, no matter where you are from or how imperfect you might sometimes sound.

Published this week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press publications.

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