30/01/2018 About learning foreign languages

I’m sitting at a small kitchen table, in what I remember as a dimly lit, cozy kitchen, next to a boy my age called Radu. He’s kind of short and stubby – but as a matter of fact, so am I – he has a kind face and fluffy black curls. He’s shy. Shier than me, which is a lot. This is our first German lesson. Our teacher, whose name I forgot, has rust-colored hair, wears large glasses and is older than my mom. Which in my book means she’s grandma-aged, because I categorize ages by the people in my family: there’s my age, around 10, my sister’s age, around 16, my mom’s age, around 40, and everything after that is my grandparents’ age. We’re learning what colors are called in German. We just reached “braun” and we’re struggling to find an object which has this color. Radu’s shyness and mine are being overly courteous with each other: Be my guest, you be shy first. Oh, no, by all means, you be shy! In the end, the teacher helps us: what about a chestnut? Did we ever eat chestnuts before? We didn’t. So she whips up a skillet and makes some for us. We’re not sure what to think of them. In about a couple of weeks’ time, Radu and I will learn the words “Esel” (donkey) and “Gans” (goose) and will overcome our shynesses enough to use these words on each other.

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We’re in ninth grade and we’re starting to learn French. There was a poll to see how many of the kids in our class want to go on with studying German, and how many want to go on with French. The French kids won. So we, German kids, are now learning our first French words: “Je suis débutant”. Little do we know, for many of us it might be the only thing that really sticks till the end of twelfth grade. Our teacher has rust-colored hair, wears large glasses and – yes – is grandma-aged. Except she wears the funkiest combinations of clothes, shoes and jewelry I’ve ever seen. Bracelets the size of cups. Big clasp earrings made of colored glass. Boots with soles that look like caterpillar chains. Though I did decide to pass an exam in French on the admission exam at the Faculty of Foreign Languages, I never did learn too much French from her – she never really believed I could make up for the condition of a “débutant” and I baffled her with my 9.10 in the Baccalaureate. But one thing I did learn from her was… to love Italy! She was one of the teachers always organizing trips to see Europe for the kids in our high school, and she was so absolutely smitten with Italy that it rubbed off on me for good.

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First year of Portuguese. We have a fair deal of weird-sounding abbreviated classes, like LVP and LPC. Turns out the first is, in fact, Latin (it comes from „Limbă veche de profil”, i.e. the language our language of study originated from). And LPC is Contemporary Portuguese Language, which sounds pretty good, it’s supposed to be a deep study of the language’s inner mechanisms. But our teacher is a stern lady, with the straightest and grayest hair I have ever seen – not one fuzz – and she is set on dictating the lecture from a bunch of yellowy typewritten pages. She even tells us where she got them from: apparently her husband was a famous dialectologist who discovered a couple of variants of Portuguese in India. He was the professor who wrote these materials she’s reading to us now. Quite glamorous for him. Not so much for us. That’s almost all we do in the theoretical part of the class. Good thing we have a practical part, too. That one is dedicated to her dictating phrases that we get to write on the blackboard, so she can check our spelling. Other times she teaches us what seems like the least important words you can learn in your first year of studying a new language, like “rebanho” (herd). Our class clown, Lavinia, who happened to learn some Portuguese in the only high school teaching this language in Romania, makes fun of us and teaches us to say “rebanho de lobos” (a herd of wolves). Not many people chose Portuguese this year, there’s just around 10 of us. We have a single boy in our group, and he only chose Portuguese because he failed the exam at the Police Academy (he’ll leave us by the end of the first year, anyway, to join that particular “rebanho de lobos”). It’s now his turn to write on the blackboard. He missed a few accents, so the teacher, calling him “mister” and wearing a stone-face which matches her hair perfectly, asks where he’s going to place the acute accent. Lavinia pretends to whisper the answer: “The “t”! Place it on the “t”!”

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It’s our fifth or sixth Dutch class and I’m late again. It’s raining “katten en honden” and I forgot my umbrella, so I’m soaked, despite my newly bought extra-dry extra-warm jacket. It IS warm, alright. But I’ve somehow managed to get rain under my sleeves and it now seems to drip upwards, meeting my sweat in the middle. I’m hurrying cause I know our teacher will be upset. He’s an otherwise perky older gentleman who, of course, rides his bike to class, but he’s been super grumpy every time I arrived late. We have class inside the office of a company so the teacher needs to be there to buzz us in when we arrive. Last time I arrived after he’d decided to go upstairs with the rest of the “rebanho”, although it was just five past and I’d messaged to say I was arriving a bit late. So he had to come get me. He greeted me with icy looks and then made an example of me in front of the class: “Please don’t… wasted time…”. This time I make it just in time. I’m dripping all over the floor and my glasses are blurry, despite the extra hundreds of lei I paid especially to prevent that from happening. “Am I late?”, I pant. This time, the teacher is jolly, and it’s still my doing: “How could you forget your umbrella?”, he says. Apparently I’ve missed Dutch lesson no. 1: always pack an umbrella. We learn a lot of things that don’t make sense. For me, mostly because they BEGIN by making sense IN GERMAN, then they go horribly, horribly wrong. I feel like correcting everything. I keep pronouncing “een” like the German “ein” and the teacher boasts, “Dat is Duits, Miruna!”. But the “ui” in “Duits” is pronounced like the “oei” in the French word “oeil”, by the way. And they have the word “sorry”, except it sounds a bit like “souris” in French. So don’t believe the people who say Dutch is like German had a baby with English. No. It’s like German had a monster baby with English and then someone decided the monster would be cuter in a French beret. At the end of the class, the teacher says: “Lookie what I have here, guys! Something Miruna will hate me for… teehee… an umbrella!” I feel like telling him, well I know a couple of languages which make way more sense than yours, so neener neener right back at ya!

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This week I’m going on to chapter 2 of the Dutch learning experience. Wish me luck!