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by Ray Wiseman

Canadian, eh?

A recent email written in Scottish dialect got me thinking about languages and how I have made them a hobby for most of my life.

Unfortunately, that old adage, “Jack of all trades but master of none,” fits me when it comes to language learning. Of course, I like to think that doesn’t apply to English, where I have gained some expertise. 

It all started in the first grade. Having arrived recently from England, I spoke a different version of English than my classmates. When I said words like scawf instead of scarf, they tossed puzzled looks my way. The less courteous in the class laughed out loud. It didn’t take me long to adjust my pronunciation to Canadian. Eh?

Before I turned 16, Mother moved to B.C. while I stayed behind with a Norwegian family to finish the school year. I tried to learn Norwegian in the few weeks with them, succeeding only in mastering a few greetings and translating the song Here Comes Santa Claus from English to Norwegian. A rather foolish thing with Christmas still six months away, and with me unable to carry a tune.

Many years later I tackled Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament. That resulted in my most successful language-learning experience. I took an hour off work for four mornings each week throughout two college semesters. To my surprise I came first in the class with a mark of 94%.

Now I must jump ahead a few decades. Last year my daughter applied to study for a Master of Divinity degree and found she needed two semesters of Greek. When she chose to take it in eight weeks by correspondence, I saw disaster approaching. I told her I had received 94% in Greek. She said, “Are you challenging me?”

The outcome? Illness cut her eight weeks to six, but she still earned 97%. I imagined myself as clever, but the little smarty walked all over me. Even worse than getting clobbered by my daughter, I have forgotten most of the Greek I learned.      

Before going overseas, I took a course in linguistics. In South Africa, Anna and I studied Afrikaans until we had a usable grasp of it. The boys took it in school and soon surpassed us. Next, we began learning Zulu. That terrified us when we discovered that Zulu speakers don’t change the end or beginning of words to alter tense or meaning; they change a few letters in the middle of the word. I saved myself from complete embarrassment by returning to Canada after the third lesson.  

In preparation for a writing assignment in Indonesia, Anna and I studied their language, Bahasa Indonesia. In an attempt to show how much I had learned, I wrote out the first sentences of a chapel message in Bahasa. I began speaking in Indonesian, then cleverly pushed my notes off the lectern, saying, “Oh, I have dropped my notes. I will continue in English.” However, a student jumped up and returned the notes to me.

Language wise, I just can’t win. Seriously, the more you learn of people’s languages, the better you understand their culture and lifestyle.

By the way, I have written this column in a subset or variation of English known as E-prime. Never heard of E-prime? Get out your dictionary.



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