Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Flip. Flip. Flip. Point. (Cross-cultural Adventures in Hungary)

Some months ago, I saw this video in my Facebook feed. It is supposed to be how the English language sounds to native Italians. It's actually jibberish. The song starts at about 1:45.

What do you think? Is this how English sounds to Italians? To all speakers of other languages? It does sound more similar to English than to Italian, but nothing's understandable, aside from "all right." I suppose it interests me, because I have some experience teaching English as a foreign language.

I spent the summer of 1993 teaching English in Debrecen, Hungary,

 and the very next summer, of 1994, teaching English in Riga, Latvia.

I remember that, in the first few days and weeks I spent in Hungary, I kept thinking I was hearing English, that is, I kept thinking I was hearing English in the Hungarian words I was hearing around me. And then one night, I actually heard English in a very strange and unexpected way.

The five other teachers and I, all students and one teacher from my college, were housed in a Baptist church. The church building was actually better equipped for this than you might expect, complete with little apartments, kitchens and bathrooms with showers. The pastor and church caretaker and their wives also stayed in apartments in the building. 

One late night, after dark, while staying in my room, I  heard men outside reciting lines from "The Three Little Pigs."

"Little pig, little pig, let me in! Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!" 

Needless to say, these were not words I expected to hear. I called for Ruth, my roommate, and we looked out the window. Just outside the building, there was a little children's playground. The men, about four of them, who appeared to be drunk, were stumbling around and spinning themselves on the merry-go-round and, very oddly, repeating these lines from "The Three Little Pigs" story. "Little pig, little pig, let me in!" At first, it was amusing. Then, I heard what seemed like a door or window rattling, and their words took on a different meaning to me.

"Let me in? Why are they saying this? Do they know there are American women in here?" I think I was responsible for getting Ruth suspicious and alarmed. Together, we contemplated waking up Chad, the one guy in our group. We didn't, and nothing further happened.

In the morning, we told Chad the story. "You should have woken me up," he said. "I would have laughed."

At the time, I wondered how he could be so unfeeling, but now, I see it more from Chad's point of view. We later learned it was the caretaker who was rattling the window.

We were essentially immersed in the culture knowing very little Hungarian, only a few greeting phrases, numbers, etc., and we taught English mostly to students whose English was also on that level. We did have a translator, Eduard, who did not help us in our English classes -- we were teaching by immersion methods and, in fact, we encouraged students to shut their dictionaries -- but who helped us in a lot of other contexts.

You will wonder how we communicated, especially since not all of our communication happened in our classes where we spoke all in English. We communicated very interestingly, with a combination of charades and Pictionary methods, gestures, a combination of English and Hungarian words, however we could make ourselves understood. 

We did have a few advanced students. There was Peter, a Hungarian who had gone on "permanent vacation" to Sweden during Communist times and returned to Hungary after Communism fell. He said he taught himself English watching American movies. There was also Tamas who had learned British English with other instructors.

There are a couple of funny stories I remember concerning Tamas. On a more casual, social occasion, one of our English teachers decided to teach whomever wished to learn some country line dancing steps. Tamas refused, saying with a very posh British accent, "because I am shy and absurd." I understood him perfectly. He didn't want to appear absurd by dancing in front of others. What he actually said was that he was absurd! 

" ... Because I am shy and absurd."

Eduard's wife actually spoke almost no English. One time, at a picnic with several of our students, I was sitting alone with Eduard's wife and their baby. The two of us were not quite alone, because Tamas was nearby. I did not know how to interact with her, so I began to pick up some of the baby's toys and teach her the names of the animals they represented. I'm not sure she wanted a crash course in the English names for animals, but I did not know how else to communicate. Tamas, meanwhile, was quietly observing this whole thing. I held up a plastic camel toy. "Camel," I said. It was not like the photo below. I can see it in my mind's eye. It was blue plastic and shaped like a camel cookie cutter, only the "cookie cutter" was filled in with a thin layer of plastic. Tamas spoke up then, again with the posh British accent, "It is not a camel. It is a dromedary."

"It is not a camel. It is a dromedary."

Looking back on it, I think I am more astonished now than I was then that Tamas had the confidence to correct the English teacher, when it wasn't his native language but it was mine. First of all, the toy may have represented a dromedary type of camel, but camel was still a perfectly legitimate term. Secondly, that being so, why would I teach this woman who could barely say "hello" the word "dromedary" before she knew the word "camel?" 

Eduard was a good companion for us, and, by the end of the summer, we had all developed quite an affection for him. He took us to this fountain at the University of Debrecen. One of our American group wanted to walk through the fountain, but we didn't want to initiate it without Eduard and be seen as the crazy Americans. We communicated this to Eduard, and he led the way right through the center of the fountain, and we all followed like ducks in a row. What an accommodating man! Eduard also had us to his home several times for dinner.

We made many other friends. Our Hungarian students overwhelmed us with their hospitality. They wanted to invite us to their homes for dinners or take us out on tours of the local sites or take us out to ice cream or out for a swim. Soon, our calendar was overloaded with social dates, and we had to divide up the group just so we could oblige all of the invitations we received. Once we were at someone's home, they wanted to stuff us with food and didn't want us to go home at the end of the evening. 

One of my beginning students, Istvan (EESHTvahn), took a great interest in spending time with all of us. He was a young guy in his twenties as we all were at that time. He could barely speak English, but he would step in while we were eating dinner. We were spoiled by a rotation of volunteers who prepared fantastic Hungarian meals for us. "Everybody ... ice cream!" he'd say. He didn't have to say many words to convey he wanted to take us all out, and he continued to lavish attention on us. Basically, this man wanted to hang out with us ... a lot.

Istvan had an interesting method of communicating with us outside of class. He carried a little Hungarian-English dictionary. He'd say a few words and when he thought of a word he couldn't say, he'd flip in his dictionary, point to the English word and then show it to us rather than say it, perhaps because he didn't feel confident he could pronounce the word right or use the right grammatical form, (plural, verb tense.) It was a painstaking way to communicate when he had to look up every other word, but Istvan had the patience of Job. I remember him trying to tell us a story about his dogs by this method. 

One day, towards the end of the summer, Istvan came up to me, quite upset. "I am ... " Flip. Flip. Flip. Point. The word was angry.

"You are angry? Why?" I said.

"Because Eduard ..." Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip. Point. The word was monopolize.

He was trying to tell us that Eduard was monopolizing our time. Eduard could probably say the same about him, and it would be more true. 

I couldn't be upset. It was, in fact, a strange compliment that we were so well liked that our new friends were in competition for us!