06.08.07

Life lessons from Bart Simpson

Posted in Society at 11:54 by RjZ

There is a Simpsons episode where Bart finds himself alone and upset in a French barn. His foreign exchange family is a nightmare; making him do hard labor and like many U.S. Americans, he can’t understand anything that’s going on around him. Until suddenly he finds that he can! He actually understands those around them and to his own surprise the words leaving his mouth are in a foreign language he never knew he was learning.

Except for the evil foreign exchange family, that’s pretty much how it happened for me, too. I had taken German in college for a little while but I was more interested in the cute girl who invited me over to study than I was in focusing on learning the language. I thought I knew a bit too, but when we finally met our host at the train station in Regensburg, it was frustratingly obvious that I couldn’t understand a thing, much less speak.

I was enrolled in an immersive language course where the teachers spoke only German to a class of non-German speakers who didn’t necessarily speak English either! And there you are; sitting in a class with a teacher speaking German and a class saying almost nothing and you don’t really understand much of anything. A couple of months go by and you’ve learned a few phrases and can understand when it’s time to leave class or how to ask for a beer at a pub, which isn’t very hard since the German word for beer is bier but you can still hardly speak.

Like Bart, I don’t actually remember when the words on the chalk board started to unscramble themselves. I noticed there was a point when I could actually make out individual words from the stream of syllables and gibberish directed towards me a local market, but I still had no idea how much two pieces of fruit cost, or which way to go to the bathroom. I don’t remember, but it did happen. Suddenly, without warning, I did understand. I could speak German. I wasn’t translating from English, but thinking and dreaming in German as much as in English. For me, it was as if German words were just new words in my suddenly larger vocabulary, and not like I had to do anything different to use them.

Learning another language turns out to be rather easy, although not everyone has an extra two to three months to spend, bewildered, in another country like me and Bart Simpson had. And like Bart, one of the most amazing things about learning another language was the world it opened up. Much more than the culture of the people who’s language you’ve learned, but subtle things like new humor (wordplay never translates but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny, and you’ll never understand another language’s puns without learning it.)

Then there’s the mental flexibility that comes from learning how to say things with a different grammar that is capable of things your mother tongue isn’t, even while there is simply no word or expression for something that’s easy to say in your native language. Hindi, for example, has verb ‘to have.’ Try communicating without ever saying ‘have’. I have a blog. I don’t have enough time to write in it. Yet millions Indians seem to get by without this seemingly critical word: this blog is mine, and time is too short to write in it.

Better than mental exercises and cultural lessons was meeting people whom I could never have spoken with before. One of our classmates was from Poland. A fun and fascinating friend who spoke Polish and Russian but was learning German. We both had to struggle to communicate with our shaky vocabularies and unsteady grammar, but without this mutual language we’d never been able to learn anything about each other. Learning languages isn’t just a window into a new culture, it’s also a bridge to lands and people beyond. It’s also an easy way to get a smile from someone you don’t know. I can say “thank you” in dozens of languages. Get’s a smile almost every time, even from the French. Even Bart Simpson knows that.

2 Comments »

  1. Tim R. said,

    June 13, 2007 at 22:24

    great entry! see my satire of tancredo’s fear of bilingualism at

    http://timrohrer.com/blog/?p=94

    I really can’t understand what the fear of people who speak a different language is. And can be downright fun to speak another language–especially when you haven’t told someone that you do yet. Have you written up the ’speaking-German-all-day’ story yet for the blog? It is one of my all time favorites.

  2. Traveling Hypothesis » Not so secret language said,

    June 14, 2007 at 13:49

    [...] A request! Well, since you asked… (check out the comment from [...]

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