‘You are a toilet, where am I?’

Can you say “Why don’t they learn to speak English if they want to live here?” in Spanish? In Italian? In Greek? I can’t. Unless you learned another language as a child or are particularly gifted – I saw a guy with Asperger’s on TV who learned to speak Icelandic in two weeks – it’s hard and extremely embarrassing to speak another language while you are learning it. Even if you know the vocabulary, you know you’re speaking with an accent, you know that you’re making a fool of yourself. Four-year-olds can speak the language better than you. So you try to avoid situations where you have to speak another tongue, usually until you really need to find a bathroom in a foreign land. Then you carefully compose the question in your head and screw up your courage say in their language: “You are a toilet, where am I?” Good luck on trying to understand the answer. Try to get through your day only speaking in the present tense and saying “he” when you mean “she” and you’ll get a feel for how awkward it is. Sure, people who plan to live in an English-speaking country should learn the language. I just don’t think we should pretend that it’s easy.

I just finished the third level of the Rosetta Stone course in French and I enjoyed it. They make learning another language almost as painless as playing a video game. It’s not cheap – from $200 to $575 depending on how many levels you get – but compared to the $400 it costs to take a semester of forgettable French 1 at my community college, it’s a bargain. It took me 10 months to complete three levels; 15 to 20 minutes a day of watching pictures pop up on my screen as they told me in French what I was looking at. No conjugating, no lectures on masculine/feminine agreement, no endless discussions on tenses and when to use them. Compared to my mind-killingly boring high school French lessons, this was entertaining and fun.

I now feel comfortable ordering food or taking a cab in France, but that’s a long way from being fluent. I still can’t make heads or tails of French movies – they talk too fast and they use too much slang, and they’re always smoking and discussing incomprehensible philosophies. I try to keep up by puzzling through the front pages of online French newspapers. It’s tough. Rosetta Stone taught me all the everyday normal verbs: being, having, standing, sitting, driving, walking, speaking, taking, finding, looking. But when I tried to read the headlines of a French newspaper, I realized quickly that they had left out the most commonly used newspaper verbs: murdered, killed, wounded, shot, stabbed, drowned, bled, kidnapped, strangled, robbed, beaten, divorced, cheated, embezzled and electrocuted. None of those words were used in any of my lessons, and words like oil spill, hurricane, disaster, tragedy and crash were also missing.

Thanks to my lessons, I can ask for directions to the theater in French, confidently and correctly. But if I get mugged on the way, I don’t know how to say, “Please don’t shoot me.” And if I did know how to say it, should I use the polite form or the familiar form of “please”? I suppose it would depend on whether he’s older or younger than I am. I’m hoping that’s covered in Level 4 or 5. In my panic I would probably say something idiotic, like: “My flight will be 45 minutes late,” which always comes in handy. He’ll realize he’s dealing with a crazy foreigner and run away.

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at jim_mullen@myway.com

Copyright 2010, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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