May 18, 2012 | Review Period
The review is paying off.
Despite any doom or gloom that may have emanated from my last entry, I am pleased to report that this week, while volunteering at the Official NYC Information Center, I saw real results from my ongoing language review of French, Spanish, German, and Italian.
On volunteer day I started my morning with Italian study over coffee, then went to the center, where I had extensive conversations in French, German, and Spanish with tourists seeking information.
This Reference Book Appears to Be for People Who Take…
…Their Spanish Grammar Very Seriously. I Respect That!
I even got in a line or two in Dutch with visitors from Holland, after which Italian tourists came in and I was able to exchange some coherent thoughts with them before they switched to English.
Oh, well. Maybe I wasn’t that coherent.
But here’s something else: the night before, my phone had rung. When I picked it up, I heard an unfamiliar-sounding voice. I was about to hang up—this came in on my work line, and I get a lot of random calls there—when I heard, as if from a far-off land, “Eeeeellleeeen?”
It was my mother-in-law-in-law! Or rather, the mother-in-law of my sister-in-law, in town from Italy. She was on a cell phone mere blocks away. Perfect!
I had just spent a lot of time over the previous couple of weeks on Italian, and suddenly she was popping up unexpectedly in New York—and she doesn’t speak English! She was totally at my mercy!
I had a not insubstantial phone conversation with her in Italian, feeling proud of myself for getting most of what she said (it’s harder on the phone than in person), and arranged to meet her and her friend the following day for coffee after my NYC & Company shift.
One thing I love about talking to my mother-in-law-in-law is that for the first 16 years of our acquaintance, I couldn’t really communicate with her. Then suddenly, after three months of intensive Italian study in late 2009/early 2010, I could. It felt pretty miraculous. Previously I could try to muddle along a bit in French with her, but her French was bad, and mine was bad, so the focus was more on gesticulation and facial expressions than actual words. I would not characterize it as highly effective communication.
Since first studying Italian, I have enjoyed speaking to her with actual words. I had a blast talking to her last December when we were in Italy, for instance. She is a woman of both personality and opinions.
This time was also a blast, and I talked a ton, always in Italian. Afterwards, though, I had conversation-hogger’s remorse. I felt that our meeting, over espresso, had involved my talking rather too extensively about myself.
Conversations in foreign languages often involve unintentional etiquette violations, because there are a lot of constraints on expressiveness that make good behavior and solicitousness and sensitivity more difficult to execute spontaneously. There were questions I might have asked her, but I wasn’t always able to come up with them quickly or with the precision I wanted. So I responded happily to her questions. I do hope I was not too egregious a violator of hospitality. It was a lot of fun to chat.
Later that same day I saw a Greek woman in my building’s lobby. I have mentioned her before. Every time she sees me, she calls out (she is a professional singer, so she has quite a voice), “Ti kanis?” (How are you?)
I say, “Ime kala.” (I’m fine.)
Usually the elevator door is shutting by about this point in the conversation, saving me from further exposure of my almost entirely forgotten (for now) Greek, though lately I’ve also been managing to squeeze in epharisto, meaning “thank you.”
Yes, I am a scintillating conversationalist in Greek. As compensation, I am pretty sure she enjoys watching me squirm.
To sum up: the day involved at least a few words in seven languages, and a lot of words in five of those. It was amazing. That kind of experience makes the world seem much bigger and much smaller all at once.