Thursday, October 13, 2011

What do you call someone who speaks only one language?

Holy smokes, over 1,000 views on my little blog! Unbelievable.... thank you, my dear readers! : )

Just got home from a long night of classes. This afternoon I had my first energy drink (Red Bull) in Ukraine, because I had a feeling I'd need one to get through the day. It costs $2, just about the same as in the US. One of my students, a doctor in training from Jordan, fussed over my health when he saw me drinking it.

After class I stopped at the шаурма stand to wolf down a шаурма to go.

What is a шаурма, you may ask? Well.....I'm not really sure either. Some kind of roasted meat on pole, put in a tortilla with lots of other stuff. I remember enjoying some very tasty шаурма in Crimea in 2007. The Kharkov version seems to be not quite as tasty, but it will do.

Oops, no, that's not шаурма
This is шаурма!
There has been a pretty dire food and time shortage in my kitchen as of late, and almost all meals have consisted of me eating some form of boiled dumplings in garlic sauce or pasta with sausage.

Anyways, the шаурма was delicious but now that I've eaten it, we'll see if it was such a smart idea or not, haha. I'm always a little suspicious of street food, especially when it comes from a place called Quick Charly's and the cook puts down his cigarette to make your meal.

Speaking of the cook.... both times I've been to this stand the cook has wanted to talk to me. Tonight he told me he's from Tunisia, by way of Germany. Turns out he speaks 5 languages: French, Arabic, German, Russian, and English. That really got me thinking. In the US, if an American spoke 5 languages it would be seen as an incredible intellectual feat, yet in the rest of the world such talent is just business as usual. I think it's because of America's isolation and cultural snobbishness.... until recently, it was seen as the world's responsibility to learn English to communicate with us, instead of us learning their languages. Most countries in the world are smaller and hence, their borders were closer to their different-language-speaking neighbors, so of course people learned more than one language. It just made sense. Meanwhile, America was floating there by itself, its lands vast and untouched by the need to learn anything new. I'm sure it's the same if you compare the languages spoken in small European countries to the monolingual towns in the heartland of giants like Brazil and Russia. Mind you, I'm thinking of the 1970's and 80's, not the year 2011. Now all bets are off. America's finally accepted multiculturalism, in part because immigrants and refugees joining our communities have forced us to open our eyes, and the internet has made the entire world relevant and reachable to all.

In high school, in 1999 or so, language studies were a mere afterthought in our school curriculum. You could choose between Spanish, French, or German (Japanese was added later) and you were supposed to take 2 years of classes which met maybe 90 -120 minutes a week. Seriously, can a 15-year-old learn German like that? Would a 15-year-old even want to? Now I'm sure the schools are different, now I'm sure they focus much more intensely on foreign languages, but in the 1990's America was still harboring that old isolationist mentality. And seriously, even if you wanted to learn a foreign language, what was the point? It wasn't like you could Skype someone in Italy after work, or hop on a plane and go to China for 3 weeks, or even meet a foreign-language-speaker easily in your hometown. There was no point in going to the effort of learning unless you had some special diplomatic or business-related job.

Back to the chef of the 5 languages..... again, in the US you get so much credit for speaking even one foreign language decently (even more so if it's not related to your ethnic background), people are still surprised and impressed. How crazy that here it's just another skill for survival, like being able to fix cars for money or raise vegetables to sell. It's not like this guy probably has a resume where he's going to list all his languages to impress potential employers. (Or maybe he does. Who knows.) Most people I've meet who speak that many languages don't think it's anything special. If I make a big deal out of it, they get kind of annoyed, so I'm not going to say anything to him....but wow! What a guy!

(All that said, America, I love you, you know that. One thing that you have is endless optimism and that is actually a pretty powerful tool.)


  1. What a thoughtful post Katherine! And all I can speak is a little Yupik, a little more Ojibwe...and, and... So nice to be reading all of this! Hope Denis has rendezvous'd by the time you read this!

  2. Haha, Steve, you're being so modest. I happen to know you also speak a little Somali, Nepali, Arabic, Ukrainian, Russian, French, Amharic, and Dinka...and you're fluent in charades! :p

  3. mmmm...In Kirov and in many other russian cities is done very tasty brother of shaurma... It is called "danar" )) Did you ate it sometime Kate?

    P.S. Shaurma is gift of gods. haha (: