Posted by: patenttranslator | February 20, 2014

Once a month I try to practice my French

Once a month I try to practice my French at meetings of people who want to speak or who actually do speak French at “meetups” organized here by Alliance Française. Alliance Française is very active here in Eastern Virginia because they have meetings not only in Chesapeake where I live, but also in the neighboring cities including Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, and Williamsburg. I could drive also at least to the meetings in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, it takes about twenty minutes most of the time, but I hate driving during rush hour, so I go only to the local one.

One meets all kinds of people there. This week I was sitting next to an older gentleman whose name I don’t remember now. I don’t remember it because it was an Armenian first name, and I am not very good with Armenian first names. He told me that he was 87 years old, born in Egypt where he attended lycée Français. This was many years ago, of course, but he still speaks very good French (better than mine), except that just like me, he has nobody to practice it with.

He told me that he speaks 5 languages: Armenian, French, Italian, Arabic, and English. I am pretty sure that he really does speak all those languages because he lived and worked in a number of countries where he was able to practice speaking them to his heart’s content. His favorite language is Italian, he told me, and he goes to Italy every year because he has friends there. At home he speak English because his wife is American and that is the only language that she speaks. He still drives, he gave up smoking 40 years ago, but he does like to drink: wine, beer or whiskey. “Every now and then, but not every day”, he said.

He also said that he exercises on a stationary bike and with some weights at home. I must try to remember all of that. If it works for him, it could work for me too.

He did not look 87 at all. I would have guessed maybe 75, if that much.

The ladies sitting next to us immediately started asking him how long he has been married, and then they immediately started going:“oooh”, and “aaah”, when he told them the number, I think it was sixty something. Being married for many decades to the same person is considered a real prize for some reason. I was going to say something like “Oh, well, after the first thirty years or so, most people simply give up”, but fortunately for me, we were speaking French and I could not come up quickly enough with the right way to make it sound funny in French.

There were exactly 20 people in that restaurant, ranging in age from 16 to 87. There were two 17-year-old high school students who looked like high school sweethearts. The boy spoke pretty good French (for an American teenager). One woman in her early forties was there with her 16-year-old daughter, so the daughter was the youngest person there. The rest of them were in their forties, fifties, sixties, and about three people were probably in their seventies.

Immigrants are usually well represented at meetings here where people go to practice a foreign language. Across the table was a woman from Montreal, next to her a woman who was born in Haiti and used to live in Virgin Islands, and then there was also a man from Vietnam. This was my third meeting and so far I saw only 2 French people at these meetings. We don’t seem to have a lot of French people here.

We were sitting at two long tables, the first table was occupied by “beginners”, namely people who would like to learn the language, but don’t speak it yet. There were about 10 people at that table, all of them Americans born in this country, mostly in their fifties and sixties. The only French I heard from that table was from a “prof de français”.

My table was more colorful, as I already mentioned, at least as far as different age groups and nationalities are concerned.

The big problem with foreign languages in United States is that they are so damn useless here. If you live in Europe, the next country where another language is spoken is usually only no more than a couple of hundred kilometers away. But here, you would have to get on a plane, unless you live near the Mexican or Canadian border.

Unless you happen to be a translator, there are not too many jobs here where one would need a foreign language. Unlike in translators’ associations in other countries, most members of the American Translators Association are in fact native speakers of another language than English.

Most people who were born here simply don’t bother learning a foreign language. They don’t know what they’re missing. They don’t know, for example, that being bilingual or multilingual helps to prevent or at least to postpone the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists have finally discovered that a good way to make sure that your brain will be in perfectly good working order by the time you are 87 is to learn a few languages in addition to your native one. Two languages is a good start, but four or five would be a really good number, the more the better.

It is also best if you exercise your body as well as your mind, not too much, but frequently, and also, do not neglect drinking either: beer, wine, or whiskey is best if you want to be able to drive well into your nineties.

But remember: no drinking when driving, and you should probably also not drink every day, that would not be good for you either.

 

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Responses

  1. Steve:
    I think that most Japanese-to-English translators in the US are, or at least were some years ago, native English speakers; but whether or not they are members of the ATA is something else. As to other languages, I don’t know. Considering the overall language competence of native English speakers, at least as of people of my generation (US or otherwise), it would not surprise me that many translators of European languages are not native English speakers.
    Derek

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  2. @Derek

    Nobody has the numbers of native v. non-native translators in US, of course.

    But when I went to the ATA directory of translators this morning and specified the translating direction as from Japanese to English, I saw that about 80% of translators listed on the first page (50 translators) had Japanese names and only about 20% were fellow gaijins.

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  3. As for not drinking every day, Steve–a doctor in Prague (where else?) recommended that I take 0.2 litres of Plzen beer (the real stuff) once a day with my lunch, but no more than that! It would be good for my digestion, he assured. How right he was!
    Trouble is, there’s hardly a restaurant that will serve a 0.2 litre glass of Plzen beer, or of any beer, for that matter. In Austria, some places do serve it. Interestingly, that size glass is called a “pfiff”, probably because people used to order it by simply whistling. Those days are long gone, though.
    Armenians do seem to be very adept at languages. In Teheran, I had a (local Armenian) secretary who spoke Armenian, Assyrian, Azeri Turkish, Farsi and English. And she thought nothing of it. There were plenty of people around who spoke three or four languages as a matter of course.

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  4. “a doctor in Prague (where else?) recommended that I take 0.2 litres of Plzen beer (the real stuff) once a day with my lunch, but no more than that! It would be good for my digestion, he assured. How right he was!”

    My French teacher told us that she was prescribed the medication in Prague in the seventies. She also said that the problem went away. She did not mention anything about 0.2 liters, she just said “small Pilsen”.

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  5. My uncle, who has been a Catholic priest for as long as I can remember, regularly surprises his flock with a steady diet of one beer daily after dinner. He had been prescribed the beer for his kidney problems many years ago and he never looked back.
    May we all be as healthy!

    _______________
    Karolina Karczmarek-Giel
    Office Assistant
    http://wantwords.co.uk/

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  6. @ Karolina

    What kind of beer?

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  7. Steve, I understand your point about no one needing foreign languages in the US. However, mastery of foreign languages here in the UK, which is at its closest 20 miles from France and not much further from the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia, etc., is also staggeringly poor. And declining.

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  8. @Rob

    Yes, I know, being close to the border of another country is not the only reason why native English speakers are not as interested in foreign languages as for instance Armenians, the Dutch, or even Germans and the French.

    I think that another reason for this (and I can think of several other reasons) is that if you are Dutch, or Czech, or Japanese, for example, you need to at least be able to read professional literature in another language, usually English, if you are for instance a doctor or an engineer.

    But most English speakers simply assume that everything that they need to know already exists in English, so why bother learning French or Japanese.

    Which is in fact good for people like us, wouldn’t you agree?

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    • Yes, indeed. Still, it’s a shame when the motivation for learning a language is purely economic or utilitarian.

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  9. I don’t buy the notion that my interest in languages will ward off senility any better than an active interest in anything challenging might, but the banquet offered to those would properly indulge is probably worth trading some decades of life and mind, so I’ll just plod along and enjoy what I have in the present, with unfamiliar sounds around me slowly crystallizing into recognizable forms with their own special music and meaning.

    I remember a group like the French one you describe that used to meet at CalTech to practice Russian back in the days when it was hard to meet native speakers who hadn’t bailed out about the time the Tsar was killed. I enjoyed the enthusiasm of the group, and most of them were far better with the language than I was, but the accents were unbearable. We didn’t have a single one in the group with good phonetics, so I finally gave up in despair to avoid ear rot.

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  10. @Kevin

    “… the banquet offered to those would properly indulge is probably worth trading some decades of life and mind, so I’ll just plod along and enjoy what I have in the present, with unfamiliar sounds around me slowly crystallizing into recognizable forms with their own special music and meaning”

    “Yes, indeed. Still, it’s a shame when the motivation for learning a language is purely economic or utilitarian.”

    If I understand you correctly, your comment is very similar to what Rob said.

    What both of you said is something that is very hard to explain to people who would click on a link that says “Learn any language in 10 days or your money back”.

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  11. ….”lycée” (sans cédille ;-))

    Cela dit, j’adore votre blog 😉

    cl

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  12. @ Catherine

    Merci.

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  13. My motivation was music. Apart from English and German (my working source languages), I have learnt Brazilian Portuguese because of my passion for the Bossa Nova music and Spanish for the Gipsy Kings’ songs and the Latin American music at large.

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