A little knowledge

By December 23, 2020Education

In a previous piece, I mentioned that while studying for my Ph.D., I undertook course work in ‘scientific Russian’ and ‘scientific German’ to give me a limited knowledge of both languages so that I could translate research papers I needed to understand, for my own research. I also noted that the scientific Russian allowed me to not blankly stare at someone asking me something in Russian, when I visited Russia. Despite this, it was a hard slog spending nine weeks in Russia with only limited Russian. Fortunately, the two people with whom I worked were almost fluent in English. However, recollecting my time in Russia, reminded me of a funny instance.

I was on the Metro travelling back to the Academy of Science Hotel from the Palaeontological Institute. The carriage I was in was very crowded and people were cheek by jowl. Suddenly, a voice from right behind me said something in Russian I couldn’t understand, so I brought out the most useful Russian phrase I had: “я не говорю по-русски” [I don’t speak Russian]. He replied with “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” [Do you speak German?]. I answered that with “Nein” [No]. He then asked “Do you speak English?”. I responded with “Yes”. He then said “Excuse me, I need to get past. This is my stop”. He was a natty, tall bloke and he smiled as he squeezed past me.

Those Russian and German classes weren’t completely lost on me.


  • Arthur Baker says:

    I congratulate you on your knowledge of German and Russian. Most Anglo-Australians don’t get close to another language.

    Language interactions which involve negotiation of which language to use are an interesting topic, often involving a bit of to-and-fro. Sometimes this to-and-fro is conditioned by linguistic politics, other times it’s simply a desire to communicate without any political overtones at all. A friend of mine from the French-speaking part of Belgium (Wallonia) assured me that in the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) sector of Belgium, he always pretended to be English (he was fluent in English and could get away with that) and got good service, whereas he would have been totally ignored if speaking French. I’ve found English much more useful in Schweitzerdeutsch territory than French (one of Switzerland’s four official languages). Linguistic politics at work.

    When you’re travelling, you can often get away with knowledge of the basic hello, thank you, excuse me, and a few other touristy phrases. Other times, especially when you have a problem, you really need to discuss something in more detail. That’s when you need to negotiate a common language, even if your knowledge of it overlaps only partially with your interlocutor’s. Sometimes you try many languages and still fail to connect. Other times the to-and-fro results in surprising discovery of a common language, and the more languages you try, the more delightful the discovery of a point of contact.

    My personal record in this respect is five, and it was in somewhat mundane circumstances – a Lisbon laudromat during our 2003 holiday in that wonderful friendly country. I had really given Portuguese a go before this holiday, teaching myself to read it reasonably well, and assisted by being fluent in French, able to read Italian, and having “studied”, if you can euphemistically call it that, Latin, in high school. But it was Portuguese’s obscure pronunciation rules which floored me. Reading a Portuguese newspaper? Easy-peasy. Talking and hearing Portuguese? Forget it. It simply doesn’t work like French, Spanish, Italian, Latin.

    So, the problem – a lot of dirty laundry on arrival in Lisbon. Need to negotiate a bagwash. Find a laurdromat. Not easy, but got it. Lady proprietor. Do you speak English? No. Portuguese here. No, sorry. Parlez-vous français? Non. Español? No. In desperation now, I try “Parla Lei Italiano?”.

    Jackpot. I have no idea why a Lisbon laundromat lady knew any Italian, and I didn’t ask, but it was enough. Bagwash. Si, signore. When ready? Domani. What time? Alle quattro. How many machine-loads, how many euros? This bag, lady-clothes, delicate, not in the dryer (“non seccare”). On it went, every detail covered in our fifth choice of language. At the end, we were both smiling broadly and the best of friends. Where are you from, signore? Australia. Dio mio!

    Linguistics – the fundamentaL academic discipline, without which all other disciplines wouldn’t get past the reciprocal-grunt stage.

    • admin says:

      Wonderful story! As an example of how different the linguistic ethos is in Australia to Scandinavia; I spent three weeks in Sweden a year before I went to Russia. Just about everyone in the Scandinavian countries speaks English and other languages. One of our hosts took us to a bistro for morning tea and the young woman behind the counter said something in Swedish which I didn’t understand. I replied “I don’t speak Swedish, i’m afraid”. She replied: “That’s OK, what would you like?”. At the time I was working with a Swede, a Russian, and a Welshman. One of the other top scientists in Sweden in my game was a couple of office doors away, and I was speaking to him one day, and he spoke to me in perfect English, one of his students came in and he spoke to him in Swedish of course. Then the Russian stuck his head around the corner and he spoke to him in Russian. I asked the Russian, who was also fluent in English, what the Swede’s accent was like. The Russian replied: “He doesn’t have one”. I was crestfallen and felt decidedly inferior. I asked the Swede why they all spoke so many languages, and I’ll never forget his reply (in English of course): “If we didn’t, who else would we talk to?”. Good point, I thought.

      • Arthur Baker says:

        “If we didn’t, who else would we talk to?”

        Absolutely spot-on. Who’s going to spend time learning Swedish, Dutch, Flemish, Danish, Norwegian, Catalan, Polish, Croatian, Serbian, I could boringly go on, unless they’re going to live for a long time in the countries where these languages are spoken? E.g. after marrying a native speaker and deciding to live there.

        Even when you do that, your struggle doesn’t necessarily end. A female English friend of mine married a Swedish man and moved permanently to Stockholm. She had all sorts of difficulty, not in learning Swedish, (she was already an accomplished linguist, fluent in French, German, and Polish), but in persuading people to stop speaking English to her because she was perfectly capable of continuing a conversation in Swedish.

        It often strikes me that native speakers of Swedish, Dutch, Danish and other such not-so-common languages are, paradoxically, the lucky ones, in that they have an inestimably greater impetus to become multi-lingual than native speakers of English, French, and other widespread languages.

        • admin says:

          I think you are correct. I also think that their learning of other languages makes them more intelligent (whatever that means) than most people. They seem to have a much better grasp of the present and the likely future than most Australians do.

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