Speaking in Tongues

Or why I am a sorta polyglot. #subtitle

“Why do you speak so many languages?”. This particular question I get a lot. I get it at job interviews (naturally), parties, social networks, at work and when I stumble into a fellow traveler on a train or plane to places unknown. The answer is always different in length and content. It is never extensive enough… And this is why I decided to blog about it, and refer the curious minds to it should they want to dig deeper than hearing the elevator pitch.

My romantic affair with languages started almost immediately after my dad taught me to read at the age of 4 or 5… I can’t really remember. The thing is that he had a close friend and a brilliant mind that did a specialization in Japan in the early ‘80s. The latter brought back some Japanese textbooks back home and my father has made diligently a copy of every single one of them… Not for himself, though. My dad had always a thing for the booming Asian economies. And soon enough his interest reflected on me. Almost as soon as I learned to read and write in Bulgarian (my mother tongue), I was handed a textbook with accompanying tapes for learning… English.  Yes, it was English, not Japanese. The books for the language of the land of the Rising Sun were with English references. And in order for me to start with the Japanese Hiragana, Katakana and characters, first I needed to learn enough English…

English

The set of Oxford learning materials my father handed to me was probably the best one I have ever encountered in my life. Well, up until now naturally. I can’t say that I was having fun studying by studying a foreign language, but it was for sure great listening to that Queen English accent. I was required to study for an hour a day during holidays, copying texts and doing my exercises, when all I wanted is to go out and play with my friends. By the time I got to High-School my speaking, listening and reading comprehension was at a passable level. Actually, that’s probably an understatement, since everyone within a seat radius from me was scoring an A on every single test and I made it pretty clear to the teacher that I had nothing to do with it. #wink

Life as it has been lived by me has offered nothing less, but a great opportunity for me to gain more and more English language proficiency. School, work and then again school… It is the language I speak, write, read, think and dream on up to this day.

Russian

During the days of Bulgaria being behind the Iron curtain every single student was required to attend Russian language classes. And as everyone else, I did study it as well. Between 4th and 8th grade that is – when the last year was already not compulsory, but rather a chosen subject in high-school.

I have to admit that I was not as diligent as I was with any of the other languages. I got the basics, but never felt comfortable with my Russian. Well, after I fell head over heels for girl from Vladivostok. I had to dust my Russian off because I thought it might increase my chances to get a date… I got the date, and then I got the dating, the long distance relationship, the marriage and the break off. And in the course of the many years of speaking Russian with her and others, I got it to a level I am comfortable to do pretty much anything with it.

French

No, it is not because of “cherchez la femme” syndrome or anything like that. See, back in the “dark” days of communism, Bulgaria had special language high-schools that aimed to prepare linguistically the future diplomats, international traders or government officials. I got myself into the French one in my hometown – Lycée de langue française “Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. For the first year I and my classmates studied only French with a bit of Math and Literature at an insane pace – sometimes amassing to 150 new words per day. It was great, and I do realize that I am saying this in a disturbingly masochistic way. The following 4 years we had most of the subjects in French (Biology, Chemistry and what else not), spiced up by some English, Spanish and Russian (if one chooses). And I had the best teacher ever – Madame Stefka Karagyaourova. So any shortcoming observed on my French should not be in any way reflecting on her, but only me.

And as intense as it all was in high-school, no wonder that almost 80% of my class went to France almost right after prom and enrolled in their universities, not the Bulgarian ones. I stayed.

Spanish

Second language at school and what a teacher we had! When I don’t feel shy and actually open my mouth speaking, my friends tell me that I sound Cubano. Well, la profesora learned her Spanish in Havana. She was quite demanding with us and I am grateful she helped me reach a level where I can read and understand most of what I have in front of my eyes. More work on my part remains, though.

Japanese

There is nothing left of it, I must admit. But I did study for two years and it was my minor Sofia University for a year before I left for China. That and the books my dad had placed in front of me when I was little. Sadly, I lost everything I knew due to not practicing it anymore and what follows in the next paragraph.

Mandarin Chinese

This is easy. Try to graduate a Chinese university without knowing the language! And I don’t mean a bilingual program, but one where even my Chinese classmates sometimes do not understand what the professor says due to his/her dialect. I spent ten years in Shanghai and have done as much talking in Mandarin as in any other language I speak. Unfortunately, it turns out that once you get out of school and replace the notebook with a keyboard, your handwriting vanishes as fast as Superman flies to the Krypton and back. At least for me it did. Nevertheless, speaking is easy and it comes natural and fast to anyone who studies hard enough.

German

I live in Germany now and that should explain why I am trying to master the local language to a work proficient level. It doesn’t go as smoothly as it was with the others, but it is a work in process and besides I am able to get the point at business meetings. #wink

Serbian

There is so much life and pathos in this language. It just attracts me. And although it is fairly close to Bulgarian, one still has to study in order to properly speak it. I did some learning on my one and now I can at least hold a simple conversation, get a beating or order my coffee and burek in Serbian.

Arabic

The only language I really desire to learn for myself. So far it is just a wishful thinking. But one day I will get on with it and complete the UN six official languages ring.

Sorta Polyglot

If you have read this far and you were not bored, this is the real gem.

I don’t like the word “fluent”. For me it was always a very subjective classification. Foreign languages are being learned to serve a purpose. That purpose and its application in the real world define the level of language knowledge.

This is why I use “sorta” and not “sort of a” in front of “polyglot”. With some of them I am happy with what I’ve got now, with others I am not. I write, tweet and even blog with typos or grammar errors. I am sure I speak the same way, just as much as I am confident that you will find some mistakes in this very post to pinpoint to me. I know a lot and in the same time I know nothing. And this is not a cute way to self-promote myself, but rather my way of facing reality.

The languages mentioned above and my life experiences so far have convinced me that “my life needs subtitles” – a term shamelessly stolen from my friend Alberta Soranzo, who happens to be a fellow sorta polyglot, too.  As with any other learning, languages open up your mind and introduce another level of approach, thinking and empathy, if I may. Your expression moves closer and in the same time farther away from shared reference. However, there is nothing better than understanding the original the way it was communicated to the world.

Copyright © 2013 Borislav Kiprin. All Rights Reserved.