Friday, July 9, 2010

Betrayed by an "Um"

Or, the importance of non-verbals in language acquisition.

I had a disturbing experience during our visit to Prague a few months ago. You see, usually, if someone asks about my background, they assume I’m:

a Czech who’s been out of the country long enough to get rusty
born abroad with Czech parents/grandparents
and so on. In order of most to least flattering.

English-speaking countries are far down the list of common guesses. Even, interestingly, when the person is holding my residence card stating my nationality in their hand (as happened with my doctor the first time anyone ever mistook me for Czech). This is an important point because it shows that my accent, while present, is somewhat difficult to define, in contrast to when I first started learning Czech and my pronunciation screamed AMERICAN IN THE ROOM. Now it is mainly my husband’s OU Sooners (college football) shirt and hat that scream American in the room. He is often stopped by Americans in Prague asking what part of Oklahoma he is from. If he were more of a smart aleck he would say Prague. Pronounced "Pray-g". Cracks me up every time.

My disturbing experience took place on the playground when a mom I was talking with asked me where I was from after just a few sentences of conversation, and without waiting for an answer, she said, “American, right?” She said her father spent several years in the United States and came back saying “uh-huh” all the time, just like I did. I really can’t remember the last time someone guessed I was an American right away during a Czech conversation.

I also recall a few years ago a colleague said to me, “You know, however good your Czech may get, I’ll always know you’re an American by the way you say ‘um’.”
My response? “Um…yeah, I should do something about that.”

I have actually worked to eliminate my “um” and “uh” and similar nonverbal giveaways, but I can’t find anything to replace them with. The Slovak is very little help, as his answer is always, “You shouldn’t say anything like that!” He was taught in school to rephrase whatever he’d just said to give himself time to regroup, rather than using a filler sound like “uh”. That is interesting advice, but it does lead to a lot of repetition. Like, saying the same thing three times in a row. And anyway, I have a deep-seated need to make some sound or hand motion when thinking (of a word or of how to answer a question, etc). I have had some success with replacing “um” and other American nonverbals with more Czechish ones (and in the above mentioned conversation I was actually intending to say “aha”), but the odd “uh-huh” still makes its way through on occasion and outs me to any careful listener. I’m also not sure what to do with “ow”, assuming I don’t want to curse, in which case I would have a wealth of colorful options at my disposal.

Who knew that grammar, vocabulary, word order, pronunciation, intonation and local cultural references, assuming I could ever get that far, weren’t enough?
Not that I don’t have plenty to work on with all of those, either! But even if you mastered all of that, you have to be the other language even when not actually talking! After all the nonverbal sounds, of course, come things like posture, volume, facial expressions, shoes (shoes are a dead giveaway for Americans, has anyone else noticed that??), and who knows what else.

I once brought a sick friend (my Czech teacher actually) TWO FLOWERS as a get-well-soon gift, and she laughed and said, “Sometimes I forget you aren’t entirely domesticated yet.” Um, okay… The ridiculous thing is, I KNEW that even numbers of flowers are for funerals. I had even advised foreign visitors of that in the past, but it never crossed my mind when going for a visit myself. It could be worse, I suppose – I have an American friend who brought his Czech wife ten red roses when she gave birth to their first child. Supposedly she practically beat him over the head with them because 1) even numbers are for funerals, and 2) where was her gold jewelry (as he should have given her according to custom)??

On the flip side, there are also Czech nonverbals that I have incorporated pretty fully into English, which I only really realized when I had to translate some of K’s utterances into “English” for my family. For instance, we say “fuj” (ew) whatever the language context, or “ham” (taking a bite) or “ňam ňam” (yum yum). Or Barany buc. I also consider “ahoj” and “čau” (both are “hi” or “bye”) to be pretty much English words at this point. I feel fairly justified in this, since the Slovak claims that “čau” (derived from “ciao”) is actually of Slovak origin.

So there you have it: my second language Achilles heel. I probably have others that I don’t even know about, but this is the main one I am fighting at the moment.

What is it that holds you back in your other language? How does non-verbal communication differ in your other language/country? What should I say instead of “uh-huh” in order not to sound too foreign?? I welcome thoughts on any of these questions!

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