Confusion Corner: Roommates become lost in translation

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October 2, 2009

12:08 AM

I’ve grown to hate family reunions. Less for the predictable breakdowns or the blatant displays of alcoholism (those can be fun to watch, at least) than for the inevitable question, “So, you’re studying Chinese? Now, why would you do that?” It’s always from some concerned extended-relative who is convinced I’ve developed some sort of Asian fetish or an allegiance to communism. Why else would one take Chinese?

It’s a hard question to answer beyond saying that there’s a sort of seductive allure to having an entirely new way to communicate at your disposal. It’s the same motivator that kept you using Pig Latin the week after you first learned it until your mother finally exclaimed, “Ixnay the atinlay.”

I had been reveling in that sort of desire my first few days back on campus. I had just returned from studying in China over the summer, so I was as adamant about using Chinese around campus as I had been with Pig Latin at the age of 10, and probably equally as aggravating. With the help of my Chinese classmates, I created a series of phrases spouted off between classes, each a sort of inside joke. But when I ran into a native speaker I was almost compelled to try their patience with my fragmented Chinese. Sure, I could understand how that would get annoying, especially to those left out once the conversation switched entirely to Chinese, but I was learning. Playing along was the least they could do. All in all, I thought it a harmless impulse, annoying only to those not privileged enough to “get it.”

Then, in the first week of classes, my roommate decided to start taking Spanish.

Suddenly, every hour of the day became “Spanish Study Time.” It started off as tongue-in-cheek. Everybody became “Senor,” intentionally mispronouncing the “ñ,” a joke that proves invariably hilarious to all beginning Spanish speakers. But it turned earnest as soon as he glanced at the day’s homework, every two seconds asking, “What’s ‘car’ in Spanish?”

__“Carro.”__ I told him.

“No, the book says ‘coche,’” he replied, the possibility of synonyms not yet realized.

This repeated about 10 times per hour.

My four years of high school Spanish hasn’t done me a whole lot of good aside from providing me with a barely passable understanding of the language — enough to be annoyed by improper sentence structures but not enough to want to constantly test someone else’s Spanish. But this seems to be exactly what anyone who enters our front door wants to do, until I’m just a step away from going all Lou Dobbs and yelling, “This is America. Speak American.”

Until situations like these occur, you never realize exactly how many of your average college students have, at some point, studied Spanish. And be it last week or five years ago, they all feel the need, upon seeing an introductory Spanish textbook, to dust off their Spanish and take it for a test run. Even if they’ve never taken Spanish — instead, a year of French or three semesters of Latin. It’s all the same, right? — they’ll still jump into the mix. With all of them together, it’s enough to make your head spin.

“Give me a sentence,” he’ll ask.

“It tastes good,” someone suggests.

__“Tiene bien sabor.”__
__“Buen. Bien__ is French.”

“Oh, right.”

“There’s a snake in my boot,” I toss out.

__“Dos serpientes. Una bota.”__

“Close enough.”

“What is __crear__?”

“I think it’s a cognate.”

“Isn’t that French for __congregant__?”

“No, __se rassemblent__.”

__“Gesundheit.”__

“No, that’s __salud__. Or was it __saude__?”

“No, I think you’re good.”

__“Bien,”__ my roommate exclaims excitedly.

“Still French, Matt.”

That’s about when I decided I’d be heading back to China as soon as possible. There’s more English used on the streets of Beijing than in my room nowadays anyway.

__Kevin Mooney is The Flat Hat Confusion Corner columnist. Freetranslation.com has become his best friend and worst enemy.__

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