By Steve VandeGriek Photos by Jan Behmer
If we were going to a far off country somewhere, but of course we aren’t these virulent days, I would try to learn the language spoken there, but of course I never will.
The Japanese have a term – Yoko Meshi- to describe the awkward feeling and stress of trying to speak a foreign language in its own stomping ground. I avoid the angst by being a silent traveler. I’m not proud of it but I can think only in English. Fluency in another language requires thinking in that language, and I cannot. I tried – two years of high school Latin, three years of high school French, one year of college Spanish. Got B’s in everything and retained almost nothing. In a non-English-speaking land I am therefore monosyllabic at best, but mostly mum unless its denizens have some English to help me with. (See Note 1.)
Note 1: A preposition is a word you should never end a sentence with.
I have no head for languages other than my own. But I do have my wife. When we travel to foreign climes she does all the talking. Pretty much like home. She’s much more conversational than I am, so she wants to learn to talk the talk. She’s good with Spanish, can cope with French and has enough rudimentary Italian to manage the necessaries. She’s tried German, Portuguese and Czech. That was pushing it, but she tried.
I admire her enthusiasm, as I respect anyone’s ability to speak a second language – especially English. Even when English is your native tongue and its intricacies should be second nature, most of us mangle it. English has more exceptions to its rules than it has rules. (See Note 2.)
Note 2: And it has a lot of rules. See Note 1.
In an episode of the venerable sitcom “I Love Lucy”, Cuban Ricky Ricardo struggles to great comic effect with the “ough” sequence in English. Without getting into a heady diphthong discussion, suffice it to say that “ough” has more than a few pronunciations – cough, rough, bough, though, through. Ricky can’t understand why “ough” always looks the same but doesn’t always sound the same. In Spanish, his native tongue, a sound is always the same. It looks the same, it sounds the same, it means the same. Spanish is big on same. Pronunciation is consistent. My ineptitude aside, Spanish is a sensible language. By comparison, although beautiful, English is a nightmare. Ask the people of Wales. English is their official language, but they prefer to speak Welsh – a language with words that contain no vowels. How do you get your mouth around “crwth”? I before E except after C” be damned. (See Note 3.)
Note 3: C note 2.
Take that seemingly simple letter “C” for example.
It can sound like the “K” at the end of cook. It can sound like the “S” at the beginning of since. It’s two, two, two sounds in one in cancer.
Put an “H” behind it and you get check. Take away that “H” and Czech still sounds like check, but the “C” is a “CH” and the “CH” is a “K”. The word for “Czech” in Czech is Cestine with a “CH” sounding “C”. But that’s a Czech problem. Put the English “H” back behind the English “C” and you really run into trouble.
There’s chair, character, charlatan and Bach. And yacht, where the “CH” disappears altogether. Try explaining that to a Czech.
You can C how confusing it all is. But in spite of all this improbability, the truth is that many people around the world – certainly in the tourism business – speak it pretty well. Much better than my Esperanto. English has become the go-to second language. Even in Wales. (By the way, it’s pronounced crooth, it’s a Welsh harp, and the “C” is a “K”. But that’s a Welsh problem.)
This is where Emily Litella smiles into the camera and simpers “Never mind.”
So then, my Yoko Meshi being relieved, where to go? In a theoretical non virus sense, of course. Maybe my wife wants to try Czech again.
I had wanted for decades to Czech out Prague. When the opportunity finally arose it happened to be in summer. If We Were Going again to Prague, it would be in the spring or fall. It’s a truly resplendent city, but in the summer you can’t see it through the tourist hordes. If I had wanted to meet the entire population of Canton – Ohio or China – I’d have gone there instead of the Czech Republic. Maybe I should have appreciated the effort they all made to rendezvous with me in Prague, but I didn’t. Even though the Ohioans and most of the Chinese spoke my language.