Asombrose un portugués
al ver que en su tierna infancia
todos los niños de Francia
supieran hablar francés.
"Arte diabólico es,"
dijo torciendo el mostacho,
"que para hablar en gabacho
un infante en Portugal
llega a viejo y lo habla mal
¡y aquí lo parla un muchacho!"
(translation at the end of this post)
The last two posts were a little bit of fun with the Turkish language, but with some serious thoughts behind it. First, a story.
I remember many years ago while living in Guatemala, hearing a surprising comment from a local friend who had traveled once to the United States and was amazed to see there a parrot that spoke English! For him, it was normal for parrots to speak Spanish, and it had never occurred to him before that people in other lands teach their parrots differently. Anyone who has studied a foreign language as an adult has probably had a similar reaction when seeing for the first time small children speaking with no effort that same language that adults struggle with for years, and can never get quite right.
Just yesterday I was on a bus, listening to a mother and five year old son behind me. The little boy made almost no grammatical mistakes even though he was using some pretty complex constructions. Not only does Turkish pile lots of suffixes onto words, but the vowels in each suffix change according to the vowels in the root of the word! That's totally bizarre to us foreigners, but this little boy had it down pat. He even showed some objective awareness of his own language, since he was talking about Spiderman, and conjectured that "spider" meant örümcek and "man" meant adam (he was rıght).
Likewise, in my travels and experience with an unusual assortment of languages, I have noticed different ways in which native speakers relate to non-native speakers. It seems that the more people see foreigners with differing ability speak their language, the more the native speakers learn to adapt their behavior to facilitate communication. Conversely, the fewer foreigners there are who learn a language, the more difficult it is for a native speaker to understand the foreigner's problem. After all, their language is the normal one; it's only foreign languages that are different.
In touristy areas in Latin America, people readily speak more slowly and adjust their grammar for me, since they can tell I'm a gringo from a mile away. In Turkey, though, many people don't slow down or simplify their statements even when I ask them to (the ones who do slow down tend to be bilingual). In fact, one time a Turkish gentleman refused to answer a question I asked in Turkish, because he automatically assumed I was speaking English. In a village in western Guatemala where I worked for a while among speakers of a Mayan language, I was the only non-native speaker most folks had seen, and since this was the first time they had seen anyone shred all vestiges of sense out of their language, I became a sought after source of entertainment for the villagers on market days -- all I had to do was talk!
I wonder sometimes in discussions about what education should look like in the 21st century, with schools and classrooms and everything 2.0, if we digital natives and digital permanent residents aren't a little too hard sometimes on those who haven't had as much contact with us foreigners (can I call them digital tourists?). Maybe we need to step out of our assumed roles and stop thinking for a moment that we're the normal ones. How can we bridge those paradigm gaps and learn to live with other kinds of normal? Perhaps by speaking more clearly to the "recent learners' among us when we're the majority, and learning and serving with humility when we're the minority?
At the rate technology is changing, I wonder how many of the tools and approaches we advocate now will be obsolete in 10 years, and yet some of us who are at present in the vanguard will insist that we keep using them because they are the norm: Twitter? But teacher, that is soo 2008!
As promised, a (not so poetic) translation
A Portuguese man was surprised
To see that in their tender years
All the children in France
Already knew how to speak French.
"This must be sorcery" he said,
Twisting his moustache.
"For a child in Portugal
To learn to speak French,
He'll grow to be an old man
And will still speak it badly,
Yet here even a small boy speaks it!"