Finding L'Amour in a Phrase Book
or, Hello, I Would Like to Practice With Your Beautiful Foreign Tongue!
by Colin Lingle
So here you are. Summer has almost unraveled around your ankles and you're
no closer to finding, meeting, and enchanting that extraordinary someone you
know is out there. You've tried to learn to rollerblade; you've gone to every
barbecue you could smell; you've even dated blindly... or at least myopically.
Still, you've got nada.
Nada. Niente. Rien.
Rien? Rien? What the hell is rien? Funny you should ask. Rien
may just be your ticket out of Loner City, my friend.
If you didn't take high school
-- or if you've sworn never to cast your mind back that far -- "rien" is French
And in this case, nothing might be something. If you have the creativity and
the inclination, you can turn what used to be 50 minutes of raw hell five times
a week ("je vais, tu vas, elle... uh...") into a beautiful future. Yes,
it's true: becoming familiar with a foreign tongue may be the best way to become
familiar with a... no, sorry, we're not going to go there. Let's say it's a
great way to get dates. Here's how it works.
Roight, 'En, Innit? Eh? Cor!
One ironic truth about us self-satisfied Yanks: much as
loved kicking some redcoat ass in the Revolutionary War, the only thing
we love more today is a British
accent. How often have you heard a co-worker break into a misshapen impression
of Masterpiece Theater's
Cooke (a Brit who was a noted American history buff) or the boys of
Python (Brits who notably conquered America in the buff)?
How often have you heard someone -- men and women alike -- confess to swooning
at the differently curved vowels and briskly breaking consonants of the
the Italians, and, God help us, even the
Something about the origin of those mysterious sounds immediately makes us want
to investigate... with our own lips, if necessary. Some of the sweatier rags
on the magazine rack these days are actually advising men how to fake an accent
to get a girl! The Big To Do would never, ever do that; we have much bigger
plans for you... and you won't have to fake it.
The logic of this notion is so obvious it's painful; almost as painful as
conjugating in the subjunctive. For one thing, with an adequate hunk of foreign
language under your belt, you immediately increase the number of human beings
on the planet to whom you can speak. OK, that's painting with a pretty broad
brush, but consider this: learning even conversational French or Spanish gives
you a new kind of access to dozens countries in both hemispheres, almost all
of which have better weather than wherever you live right now. The road that
starts on page four of a Berlitz textbook eventually leads to a very nice beach.
if you've got that certain all-or-nothing personality you can actually go to
the country where they speak the language you want to learn.
There are schools
all over the world where foreigners (note: in this case, that's you) come
to be immersed in the local culture and meet friendly other foreigners. Of course,
it's a short journey from "immersed" to "drowning." (Perhaps we need a better
metaphor.) But, as we all know from dating them, there are those who thrive
in desperate situations.
Even if you don't actually venture off of your own block, knowing your way
around a svelte alien dialect sets you apart from the next Jana or Joaquin at
the bar. Having the skill and savvy to drop just the right phrase at a restaurant,
to compliment a visiting diplomat, or personally to ask after the health of
your significant other's Zia Tonia, well, that's something that will get you
noticed. For the price of a few nights in a classroom -- and, really, you were
just going to watch "Cleopatra 2525" reruns anyway -- you might learn the proper
usage of a verb that could change your life. Maybe you'll get the chance to
reel off something like, "Dans ma vie enti└re, je n'ai jamais vu des yeux
si beaux, si doux." Or maybe you'll just bump into someone and find yourself
asking, "Siete persi?" If he or she is, in fact, lost... well, congratulations.
Choose Your Poisson
When deciding which tones -- dulcet or otherwise -- to study, you must choose
vary carefully. In the same way that we are shaped by our native tongue, we
will likewise be influenced by the new language in which we are flailing, pouting,
muttering, and grasping at hazily remembered phrases. Follow your instincts,
to be sure, but remember not to be surprised when you arrive where they lead
you. (And remember, local
dialects don't count as foreign languages.)
You may find yourself drawn to the wide and windswept gutturals of Russian,
for example, or Polish. Yes, there is a rich tradition and a truthful beauty
to be found in these languages... but only by trained
professionals using well-established safety methods. If these languages
call to you, by all means go to them, go. But dress warmly. (And find your poor,
innocent throat a reliable source of lozenges; it will wonder what it's done to deserve such abuse.)
The Orient Express
you feel compelled to master a more "exotic" language; Japanese, say, or one
of the Chinese dialects. A noble impulse, but you should be prepared to wait
a very long time
before you can actually say, "Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice that you
and I commute each morning on the same train and I was wondering if I might
buy you a coffee," without badly spraining your tonsils. If there's someone
you want to impress with your intimate knowledge of Asian culture, the Big To
Do recommends starting with the haiku
of Basho -- in translation -- and working from there. (We run a realistic
shop around here, as you know.) Also, this will help you in
February, of course.
French Kissing... and Spanish Kissing... and Italian Kissing
Ah, but if you want to progress il pi˛ rapidamente possibile to the romance,
you must study the romance languages, most notably French, Spanish, and Italian
(and, para o muito bravo, Portuguese).
Not only will you have a basic familiarity with the alphabet, sentence structure,
and core vocabulary, but these are also the languages that will make the various
objects of your affection pass out in a swoon and, if you're careful about standing
just a little bit downhill, fall right into your arms.
What We Talk About
When We Talk About Flash Cards
Naturally there are many companies all vying for the right to teach you how
to get to train stations around the globe. Is it possible to choose a method
that is free of frustration, perplexing questions, and bitten tongues? Probably
not. Books, after all cannot teach you the subtleties of pronunciation and cassette
tapes, well, they just never listen. There are interesting
resources online, but again, clicking your mouse late into the night isn't
really getting you out of the house, is it? However, you can choose a method
that involves very attractive language teachers and that's a good place to begin.
Most big cities will have one or more language
schools. Look for a reliable school in your area that has been in business
for more than the time it takes to print up flyers at Kinko's. The bigger it
is, the more likely it is that you will be able to find a teacher and a schedule
that works for you. And the more likely that you'll be able to find a private
tutor. (If you find yourself attempting to schedule ten to twelve hours a day
of personal instruction, you might want to check out certain
advice from Breakup Girl.)
Nearby colleges and universities
may also offer extension classes. Once ensconced in a community of people all
struggling with the same bilabial fricatives, you'll be surprised how quickly
classes spill over into local coffee shops and restaurants.
Clenchin' and Declension
You skeptics may still be wondering why it's worth all the trouble to learn
an entirely parallel set of words for everything, especially when the ones you
already know work fine within a reasonable driving distance of your home. The
Big To Do could go on and on about the personal gratification that one gets,
the enrichment of reading, the satisfaction of seeing the subtle workings of
language in action. But you're here because you want to know about the, ah,
"dative case." So here's
a very quick list (so quick, in fact, it only has a beginning and an end):
You can impress potential significant others. Not only will they be enchanted
by your ability to interpret
operas, they will also be deeply pleased when you can find a bathroom
for them in Venice or distinguish between the entrance and exit of a Japanese
parking lot (as Breakup Mom now can do,
with panache). Furthermore, Breakup Dad, a renowned linguist in his own right,
is willing to point out several Spanish phrases the utterance of which can
get you killed in certain neighborhoods, and any paramour will certainly appreciate
your ability to know enough to avoid those.
2. You can impress their parents. God forbid you should ever find
yourself in, say, Paris, with your
boyfriend's family. Solve one minor taxi cab squabble, secure one single bargain
at the open air market, dicker with one waiter for a better table -- and get
it -- and you will be, thence forward, good marriage material.
So think about it, the next time you're complaining about not being able to
meet anyone new. Look around and find a place to go chat with some other intrepid
young adventurers. Before long, you'll know a fabulous new group of people,
a bevy of curious words and phrases, and several provocative ways to use your
And, more importantly, when you do look up from those vocabulary lists, you'll
find the horizon seems a lot farther away.
For a while there, Colin Lingle
spoke German with a French accent and Japanese with a German accent. His French
was pretty good. He last wrote about cooking to seduce.
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