Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 10, 2017
I never met a language I didn’t like
Husband Art said while he was in high school, it was a “thing” to ask classmates whether they preferred to know a lot about a little or a little about a lot. The answer was supposed to reveal some basic aspect of your personality, but he has long since forgotten that part.
I wish he knew because maybe it would help explain why I know a little bit about so many languages.
Je m’appelle Gloria. Comment ça va? C’est le dix mars.
My name is Gloria. How are you? It is March 10.
OK, that is not going to lead to a long evening of conversation with a fluent French speaker, but it can break the ice!
I’ve always loved languages. So when a community learning center in Manhattan recently offered a once-a-week-for-six-weeks class in Introductory Conversational French, I jumped at the chance. A bonus was that Art and daughter Katie decided to join me. We’ve been to France four times in the past three years. That probably is what has prompted my intense interest in that beautiful Romance language.
But in all candor, I’ve always been a nut for languages. Maybe it began with my Grandpa Mostrom. He’d bounce me on his leg while saying a little ditty in his native Swedish: “Rida rida ranka, hästen heter Blanka ...” It roughly translates to “Ride, ride a rocking horse, The horse’s name is Blanka.” Of course, I didn’t care what it meant. It was just a way for us to connect and giggle a lot.
Swedish wasn’t the only language I heard growing up. My hometown of Burns, Kansas had an International Homestay program. International students from the University of Kansas and Kansas State University came to spend holidays with friends in town. Although the students mostly spoke English to fit in with their American families, we also heard their languages.
My first formal introduction to another language was when I was in the fifth grade. Teacher Cleora Vestring along with aide Mrs. Mendoza taught us some basic Spanish, such as “Buenos dias” (good morning) and “Gracias” (thank you.) I still have my little Spanish booklet somewhere listing numbers, colors, clothing and other basic Spanish words.
My school in Winfield, Kansas introduced me to Russian. I thought it seemed awfully exotic, what with its Cyrillic alphabet and its association with the United States’ arch-enemy, the Soviet Union. When we were in the former East Germany in 1991, Art was impressed that I could read the tombstones of Russian soldiers buried there during World War II.
In college, I added German. I was evidently fluent enough for my instructors to encouraged me to study abroad. But I have lost much of that over the years. Art has a moderate vocabulary while I’ve retained the grammar, so together, we can speak German!
A group of Latinos I met in college who became good friends reignited my interest in Spanish. I was majoring in journalism and intended to become a foreign correspondent. As with many plans, that didn’t happen, but I did use Spanish extensively in Latin America for four years, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and then as a reporter for a local newspaper in Costa Rica. I left Costa Rica nearly 40 years ago, but I am still relatively fluent. My Bolivian brother-in-law Humberto helps me brush up when I Skype him and my sister Gaila at their home in La Paz.
From my time in South America, I also picked up a few words of Quechua, an indigenous language spoken in the highlands. It was the main language of the Inca Empire and today has some eight to 10 million speakers. But most Americans know some Quechua - condor, guano, jerky, llama, puma, and quinoa.
The turmoil in the Middle East prompted me to dabble in Arabic by taking a once-a-week-for-six-weeks class. It is written from right to left with 28 letters that don’t look anything at all like the English alphabet. It was my most challenging linguistic adventure to date. I love the beautiful cursive style, but after six weeks, I could say “shukran” (thanks) and “assalamu alaikum” (peace be with you.)
When our family visited the Czech Republic, I didn’t have the slightest idea how to pronounce any of the words. I bought a Czech Conversation Guide that I carried everywhere in Prague. I felt accomplished when I could say: “dobré ráno” (good morning) and “prosím” (please.)
Art’s paternal ancestors came from Wales and we have traveled there many times, so he has attempted to learn a few Welsh words. About the only thing I can remember off the top of my head is that “Cymru” - pronounced Kim-ru - is the Welsh name for Wales.
According to the Web-based publication, “Ethnologue: Languages of the World,” there are 7,097 living languages! Then when local variations are considered, the possibilities for study are almost limitless. Just a few weeks ago, I bumped into a few of them when I attended the Bluestem Language Symposium. Topics included the many varieties of German dialects spoken in Kansas, 100 years of English-language change in Kansas, Latino English, and efforts to save the Osage language.
Hmm. Osage. Now that sounds interesting!