By Maggie Van Ostrand

“Broken Berlitz”


While lazily drinking in the Spanish language, courtesy of the PBS Destinos series and U.S. State Department audiotapes, with a little Berlitz for a chaser, it occurred to me how easy a language it is to learn. Spanish is wonderfully simple -you pronounce each letter in each word. What a concept! It’s straightforward, like its people. (One of these days, I’ll do the Mexican people a favor and try to get the grammar right.)

On the other hand, I don’t know how they’re doing it but many Mexicans are managing to learn English, despite the difficulties inherent in mastering a language so different from their own.

When my European great grandparents came to America, they spoke no English. Their children spoke little English even though they were born in Manhattan. My father heard no English at home so he himself spoke none until he started grammar school. Perhaps they didn’t think it necessary, since their neighbors didn’t speak it either. Or perhaps it was because English is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, not even barring Sanskrit.

Frankly, I don’t understand how anyone can learn English as a second language as spoken in America unless, of course, their first language is English as spoken in England. American English is also very typical of its people -a little from here, a little from there, a little created by slangsters and gangsters, a little added by immigrants, and a lot added by musicians.

Think about it. How can anybody easily learn a language that uses words that look the same but are pronounced differently, like plough, trough, tough, through, though, thorough, enough, bough? See what I mean?

And that isn’t the half of it. What about heard/beard, road/broad, break/weak, low/how, or paid/said?

I’m not even talking about English letters which are silent or un-pronounced: lamb, debt, calm, listen, through, hymn, know, yacht, or the great number of sounds in English with various spellings: bee, tea, ceiling, field, key, machine, quay, me, Phoenix, people.

As they say in New York, Oy Vey. Then there’s meat, head, heart, heard, theatre, and pool, foot, blood, door, and cooperate, not to mention cake, mat, call, any, sofa. Several sets of words may be spelled in different ways but pronounced similarly: red/read, rite/right/write, buy/bye/by, so/sew/sow, feat/feet, and ate, eight.

It’s enough to drive a person crazy. (“Short trip,” as my mother would say.)

Maybe the latest trends in English will help those who wish to learn- shortcuts supplied by the young as always. My generation sliced the “usine” from limousine to give the language “limo,” and ripped “catessen” from delicatessen for “deli.” My son thinks his generation contributed the word “cool,” but he’s wrong. How many of you hung out in bars listening to cool jazz? And no one ever lived, not even Jack Nicholson, any cooler than Cary Grant. But I digress.

To Mexicans dezyring nolej uv Uhmerikin histry: Wun uv R fayvrit politishuns wuz Prezident Linkin. I hope U dont think thiss spelling is ludacris.

I’m just trying to help you break your Berlitz. In closing, I’ll leave you with this:

A Mexican guy is visiting Sydney, Australia and stops his car near a country bus stop where two locals are waiting, and says: “Entschuldigung, koennen Sie Deutsch sprechen?” The two Aussies just stare at him, in complete silence.

“Excusez-moi, parlez vous Francais?”

The two continue to stare, still in complete silence.

“Parlare Italiano?”

No response.

“Hablan ustedes Espanol?”

Still nothing.

The Mexican drives off, extremely disappointed. The first Aussie turns to the second and says “Maybe we should learn a foreign language.”
“Why? That guy knew four languages, and it didn’t do him any good.”

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