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…lost in translation…

March 1, 2011

According to an article in the Guardian, bilingual people have a better chance of staving off Alzheimer`s disease.  I found that news to be pretty encouraging, and I can see why language acquisition would help prevent the disease.  Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language?  I learned French growing up and got to the elevated state where I knew a ton of grammar but none that I could use to actually string a sentence together.  Latin was the second language I attempted and the full range of information that I retained from four years of classes were the endings of some verb conjugation – bam, bas, bat, bamos, bamos, bunt (or something to that effect).  After these rather feeble attempts at second language acquisition I moved to South America and tried my hand at Spanish.  I was clearly able to apply all my French and Latin verb declensions and conjugations, but the speaking part still stumped me.  In fact, I convinced myself and those around me that I was just going to wake up one day and hablar.  I can tell you unlike Buzz Light-year, we don`t have a switch to suddenly speak a second language.  Too bad!  So when I moved to Brazil, I was wanted to learn Portuguese.  I found it so similar to Spanish that I spoke “Portunhol”, a combination of Portuguese and Spanish, for the first little while.  It was not pretty, but I was able to get my point across, most times.   After living in places that required me to speak some degree of French, Spanish or Portuguese, I wound up in Cyprus.  That`s when the whole language deal got interesting.  One thing I found out after studying French, Latin, Spanish and Portuguese was that the root of all these languages was essentially the same, or at the very least, quite similar.  I even began to believe that I could understand Italian!  Okay, so maybe I was a little delusional, but I did have fun speaking Portuguese to Italians.  (By the way, have you ever seen Danes and Swedes speak Danish and Swedish respectively and understand each other?)  Okay, so back to Cyprus.  I decided I might as well give Greek a go so I started out by asking how to say the basics:   bread, water, good morning.  When I heard how different they were I totally gave up.  My friend who spoke Japanese was able to do really well with Greek, but I was a wipe-out.  Now I will fast forward to the present.  I teach Portuguese to a Korean woman.  We use English as our go-between language, because I cannot make hide nor tail out of Korean.  If I cannot see it written, I cannot recall the word.  When I am learning a language, I can see it and that`s the way I can manage to speak it.  So Greek and Korean are totally foreign and impossible for me.  In fact, in Cyprus it was hard to tell what was written in Greek and what was Russian just to complicate matters a little more.  My guess is that learning a language that has the same root as one you already studies may help, but the real deal is learning a language with a different alphabet.  My hat goes off to anyone who can pull that one off!

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