Let me share a couple of anecdotes about what can happen when you take language-learning shortcuts by only memorizing phrases—and not really immersing yourself in the language.
Gallia omnis divisa est in partes tres? My colleague squinted up from his plate, obviously testing us while our group of parish employees shared a goodbye-for now, see-you-in-the-fall breakfast at the minister’s. De Bello Gallico, I correctly replied, being in luck because I’d stumbled upon this somewhere, perhaps through my love of the comic strip Astérix.
We had begun discussing language learning, and my colleague—who’d studied theology in his younger years—displayed his Latin ability. He continued relating how he’d studied French for five years in school and that the only sentence he had to show for it was taken from a short story about a man who tried to commit suicide. The poor man climbed out a window and was ready to kiss his miserable condition goodbye, but the pavement immediately below was crowded, thus preventing his leap. Faites de la place, je veux sauter! Make room, I want to jump! That may not have been the most convenient phrase ever to be memorized, but, for my colleague, it had stuck like ketchup on white wool.
Before I visited Croatia a month ago, I wanted to learn some words and sentences. Slavic languages are so unfamiliar to me that the challenge seemed forbidding. One of the necessities you learn there is to ask if the swimming is safe. Da li je sigurno ovdje plivati? Once in Dubrovnik, harboring an untamed desire to test my arsenal of newly won communication tools, I had to try out this one. I knew perfectly well that the swimming was safe, having swum for days at the site where this test was to take place.
I made sure my wife was nearby, just to have a witness should something memorable occur. She was about to dive off a rock, when I found my target—a muscular Croatian in a blue Speedo, one of those impressive guys who had just displayed admirable skill in the water-polo court floating off the nearby cliffs. I reached out over the border of foreign language and called out, Da li je sigurno ovdje plivati? He lifted his gaze as if a wasp was bothering him, then waved his hand in a tell-tale movement signaling irritated consternation from having been exposed to plain, touristic stupidity. Da, he muttered, hurriedly passing me, headed for the shower.
“Whatever did you say to him?” my puzzled wife wondered. “I asked him if he agrees that you are the most beautiful woman in Croatia right now,” I tried. But she knew as well as I did that the short tableau that had just unfolded was pathetic. Oh sure, I just had to show my eager self off and confirm the fool I am.
It did go much better for my colleague. He was patient, and was rewarded for it. About 40 years after he’d had his last French lesson, he found himself in a swimming pool with a group of people who were unquestionably French. My colleague confidently stepped up onto the rim of the pool, drew his breath smilingly, and let the words flow from his lips: Faites de la place, je veux sauter!