Monday, September 10, 2012

On being a pigeon-linguist

I have tried (but largely failed) to read books in six different languages, not counting English. I am not polylingual, I am pigeon-lingual - I can speak pigeon French, pigeon German, pigeon Hungarian etc.

 I am aiming for something more than that though. The template in my head is the person that someone I met at a party once told me about. She learned a new language every year. That would be great - three months to get the fundamentals of grammer. Three months to read a few interesting children's books. Six months to read the jewels of their literary cannon. Perhaps do an evening class. Pop over to the country for a week on holiday. I haven't been as methodical as that as my record below shows. In this post I am writing down my achievements or lack of them in each language, as a benchmark of my progress.


This is the language I have tried most often at, and would most like to succeed at. Over the last 18 years I don't think an 18 month period has passed without me trying to learn Hungarian. I don't smoke, so learning Hungarian is my equivalent of giving up smoking, one day I will succeed. 

On my second visit to Hungary in the middle 90s my friends took me to a restaurant themed on the chararcters of the writer Rejtő jenő. It had big cardboard cut-outs of his most famous characters like Piskos Fred (dirty Fred) Holdvilag Ted (Moonlight Ted). Imagine PG Wodehouse writing books about characters in the French Foreign legion or in the Wild West.  I would like to know if there is a single Hungarian character in his books (I haven't come across one yet). 

 My sister always says that it is not worth reading rubbish in a foreign language just for the sake of learning a language. You can tell from the way every Hungarian's smile at the mention of his name that Jeno is a good writer (just like so many English people smile at the mention of Douglas Adams). On various visits I have bought Rejtő Jenő books back with me.  Each time I try to learn the language again I pick up one of his books. 

My highlight in Hungarian was the moment two weeks ago when a lady approached me at Gatwick airport station to ask me if it was the right platform for Victoria. I said yes and asked her if she was Russian. She said no she was Hungarian. I said 'jo estet' and took 'az elvesett cirkalo' (the lost cruiser) by Jeno out of my bag. She roared with laughter and rang her dad in Hungary from her mobile to tell her she'd met an Englishman who is reading Rejtő jenő. 

I have never actually manage to finish a Rejtő Jenő book. I am having more success this time round with 'az elvesett cirkalo'. I think it is because I met a colleague in Geneva who gave me two lessons in Hungarian and actually got me to talk in the language. I am half way through the book and just about getting the gist - I know that a guy (who later turns out to be a woman) tells some adventurers that his (her) brother, who has come up with a potentially lucrative invention, is being wrongly imprisoned in Burma for killing a woman (Helen Addington). They have agreed to sail to Burma to get his brother released in return for a share of the proceeds of the invention.   Most of the humour is going over my head at the moment.


I have tried to learn Russian three times. First time was with very good intentions, when just starting a degree in History, specialising in Eastern Europe. I was going to learn Russian so that I could get a native perspective on the country's history. A Polish friend of my future wife's dad gave me some tutoring which consisted of getting me to read out loud chunks of text from a Russian primer and correcting my mistakes. That lasted about two months. 

Six years after my degree I was on holiday in Greece with my father-in-law. I discovered by chance that he could speak Russian. There were some Russian people in the reception and he started talking to him.   He said it was the first time he had spoken the language since the end of the second world war. There was a  Konstantin Paustovskii book of short stories in Russian kicking around the hotel (the hotel was popular with Russians).  I   gave it to him  and he really enjoyed reading it.   I ended up supplying him with a stream of Russian books - Tolstoy, Pushkin etc.  He read all of them. I had never seen him read a book in English or any other language.

I decided to learn Russian too.  That Konstantin Paustovskii we had discovered in Greece turned out to be an interesting guy, he went to school with Michael Bulgakov and like Bulgakov did not emigrate when the revolution came.  I got his autobiograhy in Russian from my old University library and got about a hundred pages through it.  I also got about a hundred pages of Master and Margarita by Bulgakov but gave up even though I had read it in English a couple of times so in theory knew what was going on. The prose in the sci-fi of Pelevin, and in the retro detective novels of Akunin, was too complex for me. My one success was with Chekhov, who writes very clear, short sentences that give the learner a chance. I got the gist of his short story 'lady with a dog'. 


This is the only one I can properly read in. Best moment was reading 'La Vie Mode d'Emploi' by Georges Perec. A book set in a Parisian 'immeuble' where every chapter is a description of a different room in the immeuble, and the people in it, at one particular moment of time. The moment of time being the moment Bartlebooth dies at his desk while trying to complete a jigsaw. 


I learned this initially to give me an idea of what my mother in law was saying (about me?) to my wife. Best moment was reading 'To Lathos' (the mistake) by Anthony Samarakis. 

It is about a guy who draws two circles on the napkin of a restaurant, and leaves the napkin behind when he goes. Both of the circles had small circles in the middle of them. A detective picks up the napkin. He knows there must be some significance to the circles, and in particular to the two small circles ('duo microus kiklous') in the middle. He has the guy followed and arrested to discover their significance. Spoiler alert - I will tell you at the bottom of this blogpost - don't read to the bottom of this blog if you are going to read the book. It is not a thriller, its more a satire on the paranoia of the authorities and was written under the Greek Junta of the late 60s/early 70s. 


My German teacher did not want to enter me for German O'level when I was at school. I promised her that if she did put me in for it I would try really hard. I told her I had a natural talent for languages and pointed to the fact that I was predicted an 'A' in French. She relented, and put me in for the exam. I got a 'U'. Looking back, it wasn't a natural talent for languages that got me my A in French, it was the fact that I listened to French radio (France Inter) morning noon and night (for the football, cycling, as a change from English radio, and because my dad had a learning-French-fad). 

I have never completed a book in German. I read the first two chapters of 'Das Schloss' by Franz Kafka. I once tried a new technique with a German short story. I read it over and over again, very quickly, without looking up a single word. The repeated readings did help to eventually get a sense of it. But I still cannot claim to have read a book in German. Imagine being able to read 'A Man of Qualities' in German - a book I am determined not to read in translation.


I have read quite a few fumetti (comics) in Italian - Dylan Dog, Hugo Pratt, Diabolik, Guido Crepax. But that doesn't really count. I did finish a Calvino book (the one which contains three stories, one about a guy who leaves his house to live in trees, one about a knight who comes back from war and there is nothing in his suit of armour, and I have forgotten the other one). But I didn't really follow the gist and only persevered because someone had chosen it for bookgroup.

I can just about read a cycling or football report in La Gazetto dello Sport but most of it is just me looking out for the words that are similar in French. 

 (Spoiler - the circles within circles on the restaurant napkin in the book by Samorakis were a pair of breasts)