Why Not to Use a Phrase Book

bilde0115Let 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.

bilde0105I 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!

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  • http://www.hubbardirondoors.com Iron Gates

    Awesome post maggie, it’s been a while since I’ve been on here. I see that nobody has lost their passion. Good to be back.

  • Ray Kuryla

    Hi, Petter. I replied via FaceBook, but afterwards saw there was another way to reply, so I entered the “Join the conversation” also. Sorry, Petter, for the repetition. I read your article only today (the 9th of August 2011) because of a link to it in today’s entries in the on-line version of our city’s newspaper (“San Francisco Chronicle”), sfgate.com, and I wanted to make a comment. While I agree with you that it is always better to have some training in a language, sometimes that is not feasable. For example, consider tourists that are only going to be visiting a country (where other than English is spoken) for a short time, or that are going to visit multiple countries. Much time needs to be spent in taking a language course. Also, they are not inexpensive. So sometimes people only have the time to buy a phrasebook (or more than one, for different languages, as applicable) then leave shortly after. The better phrasebooks have phonetical pronunciations to help people out. … The example you used of the guy in Croatia, well, he was just rude. Living in a city where we get many tourists from non-English-speaking countries, a situation where someone asks a question out of a phrasebook is common. In almost all cases, the person of whom they’re asking the question is polite and helpful (I include myself in this group of course….) and want to make sure they are understood also. Also, on the receiving end, I have used them in German-speaking countries, and not once did I have a rude or inconsiderate reply. I’m familiar with Rosetta Stone because I bought and used the Spanish Level 1 course, and I liked it, but it did take considerable time to get through it. I think that, if I went to a Spanish-speaking country after taking it, I could pronounce my words well, and also remember some things from the course I would want to say, but I still think I would need a phrase book or something else to help me with words or phrases about which I was not sure. So, I think phrasebooks can be valuable.

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