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You Want to Put Your What on My Desk!??


I taught myself rudimentary Spanish in junior high and high school.  But, my efforts at formal foreign language learning didn’t take place until after I enlisted in the army.  I picked up enough German to get by during a two year stint in Augsburg, Germany, but, in 1967, the army sent me to a school in Washington, DC for a year to learn Vietnamese.


Up to that time, I’d never been in a classroom where a teacher was trying to drum another language into American students’ heads; so, it hadn’t occurred to me just how difficult it is for the average American to learn foreign languages.


Admittedly, the experience was complicated by the fact that Vietnamese is a tonal language, and some of the tones are in the higher registers; but, I didn’t think it was all that hard.  After all, millions of little Vietnamese kids learn it; so, why was it so hard for educated adults to master?


To me, it was a matter of listening to the teacher and then mimicking him or her exactly.  For some of my fellow students, though, it wasn’t that easy.  One of my classmates simply refused to pronounce the ‘high-rising’ tone, saying that it made him sound like a sissy.  Despite the fact that we use inflections to signal slight changes in meaning in English, he also couldn’t get the whole tonal thing.  And, in Vietnamese, that’s dangerous.  If you pronounce the tones wrong, you can speak a grammatically correct sentence, but say something completely different than what you intend; such as the day when we had to get up in front of the class and make a small oral presentation, and one of the sentences he wanted to say was “I have a new pair of green shoes.”  He got the tones wrong, though, and instead said, “I have a new blue scrotum.”  We didn’t have the heart to tell him, and the teacher, a young Vietnamese woman, was too embarrassed.  I hope he’s not reading this; because, as far as I know, no one ever told him what he actually said.  On another occasion, when we were having a conversation with one of our teachers in our office, another of my classmates, intending to ask if he could put his ‘cup’ on the teacher’s desk, used the wrong tone and asked if he could put an inappropriate part of his anatomy on the desk.  In this case, the teacher, an irascible old man, told him in no uncertain terms what he could do with that part of his body.


My next experience with a foreign language was also tonal, but worse, it was a language that involves different forms of speech for male and female speakers.  I’m referring to Thai, where the polite articles, ‘ka,’ and ‘kap’ are used to end sentences.  If you learn from a female speaker and repeat what she says, you’ll be a source of amusement to your Thai listeners.  So, in that regard, my habit of repeating what I’ve heard someone say can get you into trouble.  It only took me a few days to get that one, though.  It helped that before I was assigned to the training, I’d visited Thailand many times, and had already noticed that little peculiarity.


After more than half a century of bumming around the world, I’ve picked up a smattering of nine or ten languages.  I’m not truly proficient in any of them; but, I can order food, say please and thank you, and for me, the most important phrase, “I’m sorry that I can’t speak your language well.”  Next to appreciating a culture’s food, knowing a few words of its dominant language is the best way to get to know it.  It’s nice when you can really speak another language well; I find it helps me to better understand my own; but, even if you only know a few words, it can pay dividends.  Recently, my son and I were having dinner at a local Thai restaurant, and I spoke a few words of Thai to the manager.  She was so impressed; she gave us our drinks on the house.  See, learning a foreign language does have a major up side.