I have always been a big proponent of the value of learning a second, third or even fourth language. The ability to speak several tongues can serve one well, particularly when travelling in foreign lands or working with people whose first language is not English. But I have also found that sometimes knowing only a little of another language can be worse than knowing nothing at all.
When I was growing up, my understanding of Ukrainian was fair to middling. I could get the general jist of what was being said or asked of me, but my vocabulary was limited so I often was stumped by certain words. Responding in Ukrainian was a challenge as the words tended to get jumbled in my head and when it came to using the correct tense, person or gender – well, that was tough. But usually I could get a few phrases out and get by in a pinch.
However, that limited ability almost got me into trouble on one occasion. I was working my shift as a telephone operator when a little Ukrainian lady needed help to place a long-distance call. (Yes, way back then, the operator placed the call.) Her English was quite poor, so I tried to converse in Ukrainian. That’s when I mixed up my words and instead of asking who she wanted to call, I kept asking why. Thank goodness she didn’t tell me off or get me fired!
Other times my poor vocabulary was quite hilarious. When I started to attend university, I lived at Mohyla Institute, a residence for students of Ukrainian background, and my language skills improved considerably. (Or so I thought.) One weekend I went back home and proudly told my parents that now I was a “borak”. My parents burst out laughing and I was quite puzzled as to what was so funny. When they got their giggles under control, they gently informed me that a “borak” was a beet, and that I had meant to say a “borsak”. Who knew that one little letter could make such a big difference?
Even my daughter learned that languages can be a tricky business. When she was travelling in Romania (where little English was spoken in the smaller centres), she went to a restaurant and ordered borsch. When it arrived it wasn’t a nice bright red, but rather greyish and its contents were quite chewy. Try as she might she could not stomach that soup.
It wasn’t until a few days later when she was at another cafe where the Romanian menu had the English interpretation by each item that she realized she hadn’t ordered borsch. She had been trying to eat “vorsk” (or something along that line) which was tripe soup!
I still advocate learning as many languages as possible, but I also advise choosing your words carefully.