Lost and Found in Translation

From my adult students, I hear hectic work stories and anecdotes about their spouses and children, and I've congratulated them on birthdays and babies. And yet, all of this takes place in my linguistic comfort zone, not theirs.
05/30/2014 10:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I once had a German professor explain at the beginning of the course that speaking a different language makes you a different person, or at the very least gives you some sort of split-personality. Her theory was that in learning a language you develop a new personality that only presents itself while you're speaking that language. Having had experiences learning foreign languages to varying degrees, both in classroom settings and through immersion, I can't help but agree. There is something about the unfamiliarity of the feeling of the sounds in your mouth, as well as your new, growing vocabulary and the creativity you inevitably develop as you use that limited vocabulary to express the complex thoughts in your head, that all combine to give you a freedom to be different than you are when you are simply you, speaking your native language.

Therefore, it was a strange, and to a large degree, uncomfortable moment when I realized that I will never communicate with my ESL students on their level, in the language in which they can best express themselves. After nine months of teaching in the Czech Republic, I know my students quite well. I persuade the teenagers to grudgingly tell me how school is going and they excitedly regale me with tales of how their siblings annoy them as well as the latest adolescent drama in their lives. From my adult students, I hear hectic work stories and anecdotes about their spouses and children, and I've congratulated them on birthdays and babies. And yet, all of this takes place in my linguistic comfort zone, not theirs. I will never communicate with the people that they are for 99 percent of their daily lives, their native Czech-speaking-self. There is nothing I can do about this phenomenon, as the likelihood of me becoming fluent in Czech in the next month is laughable. It's simply a strange fact of the job that I've chosen that I will always have the upper hand, not just because I'm the teacher, but because we use the language I'm fortunate to have been exposed to since birth. At the same time, I'm also lucky to get to experience my students' "other" selves, the person they become when speaking their foreign language, English.

Speaking of my abilities (or lack thereof) with Czech, living in a country where I speak about 0.5 percent of the language, I've begun to notice a pattern to the way I process communication. When someone speaks to me in public, I generally adopt a deer-in-the-headlights look for a few moments while I try and figure out what they said. In many ways it was easier when I understood no Czech, as my first reaction was simply to blurt out "I don't speak Czech" (in Czech, of course. That was the first phrase I learned, after "thank you"). Now that I do understand a (very) little, it has become almost more awkward, as I have to freeze for a few seconds and try to decipher what was said. Once those few seconds are over, there are two possibilities: 1. I understood enough of what was said that I can reply with my limited Czech or take appropriate action, or 2. I don't understand, in which case two more options present themselves: Can I tell from context whether this is a) a situation that actually requires a reply and must I go through the process of explaining that I don't speak Czech? Or, b) can I get away with a noncommittal smile, nod, or "dᅣロkuji" ("thanks").

A recent example of this occurred when I went for a run around the local reservoir. One section of the path passes an area with a restaurant, a small lawn for sunbathing or sports, and a few beach volleyball courts. As I was approaching this area, an elderly man wearing a flower lei came up to me and started speaking. After going through the above process and reaching point 2a, I explained that I don't speak Czech. For only the second time in the eight months that I've been here, my knowledge of German came in handy. The man then explained in German that there was going to be a party at the reservoir that afternoon with dancing and activities, and I was welcome to join. I thanked him and continued on my run, pleased that communication had once again conquered the odds.

Despite the frustrations I've had with communication (especially when official documents for visas are involved!), a pervasive theme has been the indomitability of the human spirit to make itself understood. Charades and pantomime really do go a long way, especially when undertaken with a smile. I'll never forget my first Czech haircut: The hairdresser and I communicated entirely through mime and vocal intonation, and despite what could have been an unmitigated disaster (although to be honest, I'm not too fussy about my hair, so I was pretty much willing to accept whatever style she gave me), I walked away with perfect results and a wonderful story.

And sometimes, the meaning is perfectly communicated, but the language still seems foreign, for example, when I checked with google translate to make sure that the beef I had bought was, in fact, beef, and the translation that google spit out was "rear of bovine." That evening I enjoyed a delicious rear of bovine stew.

Then of course, there are these delightful signs from the Liberec Botanical Gardens.



In 21st Century-English, "tam" and "sem" are simply "push" and "pull," but where's the charm in that?