Friday, 20 February 2009

Language post

*Attention* Language geek post follows.

Every so often there are a spate of articles in the British press about how bad we are at learning foreign languages. These are usually in opinion columns and usually take the form of a sort of nagging warning: 'uh... look, guys... we might be missing something'.
I've noticed a couple in the past few days (ok, people have sent me links. although naturally I read ALL the papers in four languages every day like a good little linguist. Including the finance sections. it's true, honest it is).

Article 1: Foreigners translating into English because we're not clever enough to do it ourselves; the Times, Feb 16:

Article 2: Not enough native English interpreters in the EU; BBC News, Feb 19:

This leads me to the conclusion that I might be in the only profession in the current world climate in which there is actually a real demand*.

Saints preserve us, I may actually have made a good career choice!

I would write my own article, but I have a plane to catch. I anticipate No Problems At All getting to Balice airport in the snow thank you.

Oh yes and the fun stuff?

Tłusty Cwartek**: Four at last count (although cheated by eating leftover two for breakfast the next morning). I scored one free doughnut in 'Pisanie/Słuchanie' class at school; my flatmate scored two from her workplace and one at salsa class (I really have to sign up to salsa dancing).

The police protest: A police protest against the removal of their right to retire after 15 years. Lots of big bangs which the other dog would not have liked. Also, they were in my way on the way home. Last time I protested about anything was as a student in Paris. I think that's the only way to do it really.

NATO summit: lots of helicopters over the town centre and security guards on the Rynek. Very exciting... in any case, anything loud enough to interrupt classes is naturally a plus.

School: Six hours so far, including gramatyka, mowienie, słownictwo... I'm discovering I may have been hasty in my judgements of my fellow students: not everyone is of Polish origin and not everyone is engaged to a Polish girl. And did you know there is an excellent Polonistyka department at the University of Tokyo?

We have just spent the morning learning how to apologise and to forgive people in Polish (przepraszanie and wybaczenie). This will be extremely useful given my propensity to pharmacy and tram rage. Particular emphasis was placed on the right expression and accent.
Notably, our repertoire now includes przepraszanie:

z lekceważeniem
ze złością
z drwiną

And now I really must go and put these into practice in the queue for check-in...

*apart from useful things like teachers, doctors, reality tv show stars, etc.
** Polish pancake day but the Thursday before - start of the last week of carnival, only with doughnuts instead of pancakes. Just a light snack then.


Joel said...

Thought you'd like this

pinolona said...

Is that the 'Mr Prawo Jazdy' thing? I've been sent links...

(sadly the opposite strategy does not work in Poland!)

Jacek Wesołowski said...

Actually, one of my soon-to-be colleagues at work offered to try and learn Polish, but he's a Norwegian who's spent twenty years in US, so I don't know if he counts.

Conversely, I wish someone gave me a few classes on English body language. So far, it seems to consist of Wide Smile, Really Wide Smile, Really Really Wide Smile, and Oh God I Cannot Smile That Wide. How do you tell when an American or a Briton is actually NOT glad to be talking to you?

Also, there seem to be at least a dozen ways to say "nie ma za co", and I'm somewhat confused as to which one is honest, which one is condescending, which one is the "whatever" variety and so on.

pinolona said...

JW: Why does the Norwegian not count??

Smiles can be widely divergent. There's a world of difference between a tight, polite smile (for someone with whom you are obliged to communicate), a fixed rictus to stave off any surplus communication ('just a couple more hours to bear and I can hit the bar'), and a smile of genuine pleasure and encouragement.

Our Polish speaking teacher disapproves of nie ma za co: "Ale JEST za co". I suppose if you say thank you in English and the other person says 'oh it was nothing', they are belitting what you thanked them for. Preferable would be a 'you're welcome' or 'it's my pleasure' format maybe.

Jacek Wesołowski said...

One person I talked to used "yeah, always" - does it imply anything in particular? Do British and American dialects differ much in this regard?

I wonder why your teacher would disapprove of "nie ma za co". It's not supposed to be taken literally. The implication behind it is more or less that the person you're giving your thanks to doesn't feel they're doing you a favour, just doing what's right or proper at the moment.

My problem with English smiles is that a) my mind registers them all as "wide smiles", and b) the Americans and Britons I talk to keep smiling all the time. Typically, I approach them and try to initiate a conversation, at which point they put on their smile first, then turn their head in my direction. I was curious as to whether these smiles were just masks or if they actually meant something. In Poland, smiles are "nonverbal words" in that they almost always convey specific messages (such as "I think you've just said something funny").

Am I supposed to smile, too? Do I appear hostile if I don't smile at all?

As for the Norwegian, well, the articles you mentioned seem to have focused on the British approach to learning foreign languages specifically. I imagine that both Norwegians and Americans may or may not have a different attitude. Also, someone who's spent half of their life abroad is probably more aware of the need to compensate for cultural barriers than your regular Jan Kowalski.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pino:
Why would your teacher object to "nie ma za co"? The French use "de rien", I suppose "prosze bardzo" is the most proper; I suspect it must be a pet peeve of hers.
Jacek: I'm Canadian. I find all the references by Poles to "fake American smiles" a little curious. Why do Poles jump to the conclusion that they are "fake"? I'm a naturally friendly persion, and find that people generally respond well to friendly small talk and a smile. Perhaps "American smiles" are mistaken for more personal gestures than is normally recognized in our society. You call them "masks", I would counter that dour, suspicious expressions are really the "armour" we find when interacting with Poles. Every culture and people have body language and expressions that convey "openness" to some degree. Perhaps the level of "openness" that is extended to strangers by the "American smile" exceeds your own, and that is confusing for you. We obviously have personal "boundaries" that can only be accessed by our own friends and intimates. People from other cultures just aren't able to read them and interpret them easily. You probably interpret an open smile as behaviour that exceeds your own comfort with superficial or casual relationships. We don't. We know where the boundaries are. You just can't perceive them.

Try smiling back more, when interacting with North Americans and Brits. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Also, watch the eyes, not the flashy teeth. The eyes always tell the story.

pinolona said...

Hi Basia,

You're right, I think it must just be a pet hate of hers.

I don't know about smiling: once as a child I was told off for not smiling back by my piano teacher and after that I began a very strange relationship with the polite smile. I think for may people it's defensive: 'I'm nice, I'm ticking all the social boxes, like me!'

Michael Dembinski said...

Hi Pinolona,

Here's a fascinating blog for translators (focus on PL->ENG) that I came across by chance:

Useful and thought provoking.


pinolona said...

Oooh cheers for that! I'll get over there pronto!