October 24, 2013 | Review Period

Foreign-Language Extravaganza in Brooklyn

In which a bunch of New Yorkers (including me) take mini-courses in languages from around the world!

Last Sunday I went to the Brooklyn language event I mentioned previously in this blog, Foreign Language Hopscotch.

It was a three-hour language-learning extravaganza, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., covering more than 20 different languages through a series of half-hour crash courses. More ambitious attendees—of which there appeared to be many—signed up for six different classes on languages ranging from Japanese to Hebrew to Russian to Bambara.

The Invisible Dog Art Center, 51 Bergen Street

The Invisible Dog Art Center, 51 Bergen Street

The location was the Invisible Dog, a four-year-old multi-purpose cultural center in a converted factory building half a mile from Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.

I arrived to find a line of people waiting to register. In the newly launched fourth level of Pimsleur lessons for several languages—through which I am currently making my way—I have repeatedly encountered the phrase “stand in line”: in French faire la queue or in German stehen in der Schlange (Schlange can also mean “snake”). So I was equipped to contemplate my condition multilingually.

I dislike standing in lines. More important, I hate being late for class, and 2 p.m. was approaching.

Then 2 p.m. arrived.

I extricated myself from the line to determine whether it was in fact necessary for me to wait in the line. It was determined that it was in fact necessary. I got back to the line, which had now doubled in length. Agh.

Apparently a lot of New Yorkers like language-learning.

Despite my toe-tapping tendencies, it all worked out. The instructors were not, as far as I know, professional teachers, but rather, purveyors for a day of information about their respective cultures and languages. The event was a somewhat chaotic but nonetheless delightful experience. I attended sessions on Romanian, Igbo, Bulgarian, Pidgin English, and Icelandic.

I tried to attend a session on the West African language of Malinka, too, but missed the class entirely because my previous one ran late. However, the instructor—a very nice and very young man, Bassirou Kaba, 19, who was accompanied by several other nice young men of recent high school vintage—earnestly conveyed to me some of the language’s characteristics in an improvised after-class session.

At my request, Bassirou taught me Kongoh benah (I am hungry) and Djilogo benah (I am thirsty). These are always high-priority sentences for me in any language. It appears to me that the verb of being (if that is what it is) resides at the end. But I don’t know for sure.

Clamoring for Classes Outside the Invisible Dog

Clamoring for Classes Outside the Invisible Dog

Ahead of the event, Romanian was probably the language of most interest to me. I have been eyeing it lately, as it is the fifth most widely spoken Romance language and I am getting increasingly curious about its characteristics. The Romanian teacher was Anca Fronescu, a diffidently pleasant woman in her thirties who informed us that there are four cases and three genders. Oh, well. That I was not expecting.

Anca taught us numbers and courtesy expressions. Unsprezece is 11, and it means “one towards ten.” Cum te cheamă? is “What is your name?” Bună seara is “Good night.” In a nice bit of linguistic multitasking, păr doubles as both “pear tree” and “hair.” While some of this looked familiar, I guess Romanian would not be a walk in the park.

For this course I was seated next to a nine-year-old boy inclined to ask many, many questions. He was also inclined to tip forward at precipitous angles in his chair. I did not have a good feeling about this inclination, since we were all seated in folding chairs, but his mom seemed oblivious, so I decided to butt out.

Soon after that the boy was folded head-first onto the floor by his folding chair. The incident did not in the slightest dent his inquisitive nature.

My Icelandic teacher, Maria Dalberg, was pretty much gorgeous. This is something that I have noticed of many Icelandic people. When my husband and I went to Iceland 14 or so years ago, I felt as though I was on a fashion runway the entire 48 hours we were there.

Maria Dalberg, Who Dispensed Icelandic Food-Ordering Wisdom

Maria Dalberg, Who Dispensed Icelandic Food-Ordering Wisdom

Our Icelandic training took place in a small garden. Nearly every time Maria said something for us in Icelandic, the class would burst out laughing. The sounds just sounded terribly unreplicatable at first hearing, though valiant efforts were made. 

Maria made sure we would not go hungry and thirsty in Iceland (I respect her sense of priorities). We learned how to say “dried fish” (basically the equivalent of “hard fish”), “beer” (bjór), and “one hot dog with everything, please” (eina með öllu takk). 

Then there was Veistu um bílalúgu þar sem ég get keypt svið og jarðepplamauk? That means, “Do you know about a drive-through where I can buy a take-out sheep’s head and mashed potaoes?” 

These New York audience members were a pretty educated bunch. Also pretty eccentric, as is common among language nerds. When the teachers were giving cultural explanations, I could sometimes hear random people quietly finishing their sentences for them. Some clearly already knew the cultural information and had in many cases been to the countries in question. But no one I encountered was obnoxious—with the exception of one loopy lady in the Romanian and Bulgarian classes.

The loopy lady wouldn’t stop asking questions, including about languages that were neither Romanian nor Bulgarian, and she had an annoying habit of talking while the Bulgarian teacher, Milena Deleva, was explaining useful things about Bulgarian. Milena informed us that Bulgarian has only 10 million speakers, with 3 million of them residing outside of Bulgaria, and that Macedonian is its closest linguistic cousin.

Milena added that Bulgarian has much in common with Russian, though the grammar is much simpler. Even though it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, she said, you don’t have to worry about cases! Since Russian has six, I considered that pretty exciting news. 

As she was explaining these things, people were too polite to tell Loopy Lady to be quiet, but I was not. I am protective of classroom peace, so I went over and asked her to knock it off. She did.

From that session I went on to a class in Igbo, a tonal African language spoken in southern Nigeria. While deciding which classes to attend at Foreign Language Hopscotch, I was told by another attendee that you don’t pronounce the g in Igbo. That was disappointing to me, because eeg-bow is fun to say five times fast. But ee-bow it is. [NOTE: Please see comments on the correct pronunciation of “Igbo” at the end of this blog entry.]

Emmanuel Iduma from Nigeria

Emmanuel Iduma from Nigeria

Emmanuel Iduma, a 24-year-old writer, taught us how to say “eyes” (anya), “nose” (imi), “tongue” (ire), “welcome” (ndewo), and the numbers one to 10, which I failed to copy down fast enough to replicate here. He made us repeat after him.

After we repeated the word for “nine” in Igbo, he paused, then said, “No, that didn’t sound nice.”

After “ten,” he surveyed us again and said, “I don’t know how you’re going to cope.” The room exploded in laughter.

“I’m actually having fun,” he told us, “because my friends are shocked I am doing this.” Meaning teaching Igbo. Apparently his loved ones are unimpressed by his Igbo skills.

With his friends back home, he always speaks Pidgin English, he explained. Standard English in school, Pidgin English out of school. In fact, every person he knows back home—rich or poor, educated or not—speaks Pidgin English. It is not recognized as an official language of Nigeria, but it is the most widely spoken one in the country.

His Igbo session was thus appropriately succeeded by one on Pidgin English. In that I learned crazeperson, which would have worked well as an epithet for Loopy Lady.

He also taught us “Fear catch me” for “I am afraid.” And “Cold catch me” for “I am cold.” Their versions are considerably more dramatic than the standard English equivalents. Automatically gets rid of some dull linking verbs!

I asked Emmanuel whether he had ever seen anyone arrive in Nigeria not knowing Pidgin English who then started speaking it naturally, like a native.

“Honestly, no,” he said. 

Between sessions I had a chance to talk to a few linguaholics. One was Leo, a native New Yorker who, in response to my questions about his motivations for being there, said, “Certain words capture me.”

I know exactly what he means.

Comments (7)

fokkertism • Posted on Sat, October 26, 2013 - 2:02 am EST

According to Wikipedia, it actually IS pronounced “igbo”:

Igbo /ˈɪɡboʊ/,[4] (archaically Ibo /ˈiːboʊ/)[4] (Igbo: Asụsụ Igbo)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, October 26, 2013 - 10:37 am EST

Thank you, fokkertism. I have checked with my Nigerian Igbo teacher, and he confirms what you said. Someone else at the event (not he) told me it was ee-bow, and while writing this entry I checked that with an online source that I thought was reliable. Oh, well. I appreciate the information! (And I am pleased, too, because now I can still have fun trying to say it five times fast.)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, October 26, 2013 - 3:09 pm EST

Okay, to add to the Igbo pronunciation issue, I BELIEVE I am supposed to try to say the gb together in the same syllable. Like i-gbo.

trnka • Posted on Sun, October 27, 2013 - 12:37 am EST

Don’t let Bulgarian fool you with its lack of noun declension! The verbal conjugations are hellish and more than make up for the easiness of noun declesion to say the least. :)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, October 30, 2013 - 8:39 pm EST

Okay, trnka, I won’t let myself get complacent about Bulgarian. ;)

Simon Ager • Posted on Mon, November 11, 2013 - 7:48 am EST

The gb in Igbo is pronounced either as a voiced bilingual implosive /ɓ/, or as a voiced labial–velar stop /g͡b/. So the g isn’t really pronounced.


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, November 11, 2013 - 11:20 am EST

Thank you, Simon!

Readers, Simon is the proprietor of the amazing Omniglot website! Check it out!

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