Kicking the Dictionary

One of the most marvellous things about teaching and learning a language is that both processes are quite often extremely and unintentionally funny. Ponder, for a moment, the potential hilarity of my own tendency to confuse the German words for ‘grape’ and ‘pigeon’ (traube and taube) ‘boot’ and ‘pen’ (stiefel and stift) and cake and kitchen (kuchen and küche). Or the German tendency to pronounce each and every letter in an English word, as one would do in German. Suddenly words like ‘clothes’ and ‘attitude’ and ‘knife’ take on a whole new flair. I almost feel bad cutting through the flamboyance of ‘k-neef-eh’ with the flat, somewhat boring, ‘n-ih-f.’

Little things like there being no differentiation between a married Frau Hambrett and an unmarried Frau Hambrett, means I get called Mrs a lot. Yesterday I was even called Mrs Hamster, which was a magnificent collision of my oft-misinterpreted surname and the lack of ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’ in German.

Last night, during a class with a Spanish student of mine, let’s call him J, we laughed like drains for the entire 90 minutes. This is largely because, due to fatigue, J’s Spanish accent was wildly thick and he was quite unable to say the word ‘zone’ without sounding like Antonio Banderas. Every time he said ‘zooooorrrrrhn’ I started laughing and he said ‘why you lath’ and I would laugh some more. It was mildly unprofessional and I am usually very restrained when my students speak of their childrens, or things coming out of TVs or of ‘putting off their trousers’ after a hard day’s work, but J has an excellent sense of humour, and soon we were laughing together at Antonio Banderas, the Spanish, French and Italians. ‘When the French speak English,’ J said, ‘it is truly terrible. It is like they are kicking the dictionary.’

Learning a language is exactly like kicking the dictionary. Putting a language on the floor and booting it around, so words and meanings fly out and rub shoulders when they shouldn’t, wreaking havoc on meaning.  Sometimes the results are stupendous and original, because, often, as one scrambles for the best word, in the heat of the conversational moment, the most simple, direct route is best. Hence my class describing a woman the other day as having ‘canyons all over her face’ instead of, perhaps, ‘deep wrinkles’ or ‘notable crows feet’. And often translating one’s own idiom directly, rather than searching for an appropriate alternative, is less time consuming and allows the conversation to continue flowing – which is why the same poor woman with canyons all over her face, was also accused of looking like an old box.

Sometimes tiny omissions – like an ‘e’ – result in nonsensical claims like ‘I can’t breath’ or using the wrong pronoun makes you far too familiar and bordering on rude (I have since stopped attempting to translate ‘you too’ into ‘du auch’ and thus insulting people when they wish me a good day, by being far too presumptive and casual). Often verbs with similar-but-not-quite-the-same meanings get confused and a lot of ‘renting’ goes on, when it should be ‘lending’ – SG often rents things to people – or SG provides running commentary on the process of ‘watching for a parking lot’ instead of looking for a parking spot.

The only good thing about it all is we are all in the same boat, kicking the dictionary together. Thank God languages are generally sturdy creatures and the damage is (not always) irreparable. And by the way boat in German is ‘das Boot’ and ship is ‘das Schiff’ which, when I am having a particularly bad day, I also get confused with pen and boot. And that is the English boot, not the German boot.

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6 thoughts on “Kicking the Dictionary

  1. I get these things so often in class, and the great thing is that being German usually means I get where my students are coming from. When one of them said she was visiting the planetarium last weekend and they showed her the “big car”, it took me about one second to realize she meant the “Great Bear” – which is also called the “Great Wagon” in German. Needless to say that I laughed for about 2 minutes while the class looked at me mildly exasperated.

    And honey – it’s Stiefel, not Stiefl. ;o)

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