found in translation

Recently, I joined a Facebook group dedicated to my high school, and as we chatted back and forth, the names of my teachers came spinning at me like calendar pages in a film noir. Then I realized that, while I remembered the teachers, I wasn’t as able to remember the things they taught. Oh sure—I remember random fragments—bits and pieces of mid-seventies curricula. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to pass a midterm exam in any of the classes I took in high school.

For instance, I can picture Mr. Simonds (I even remember that his first name was Ira), but I can’t recall much of his American History class. I think the South lost. That’s about it. Or Mr. Hague and Mr. White, good friends (of each other) who taught chemistry and biology respectively, and looked a bit like Penn and Teller. I remember using a pipette to distill something in chemistry, and I think Mr. White had us cut up earthworms. I’m not sure why.

Yet for some reason, I remember most of my two years of high school German. When I went to high school, in addition to knowing the capitals of  all forty-five states, students were required to study a foreign language for two years. Our choices were Spanish, German, and French, and of course, living in Southern California, I picked…German?

What I remember most about German class are the ‘dialogues’–short conversational snippets designed to put you right in the midst of the culture. And the first dialogue in my German I textbook? My initial exposure to these storied people?

Fussball, nein. Limonade ja! (Soccer, no. Lemonade, yes!)

We also learned the following:

Wo ist Monika? (Where is Monica?)

Im Boot. (In the boat.)


Wohin geht Peter? (Where is Peter going?)

An den See. (Out to sea.)

Forgetting that the last two exchanges seem to cast the mostly landlocked Germans as seafarers, the first one is really the foundation on which German literature is based–a long, hallowed tradition of choosing lemonade over soccer.My point is this: The main reason people in other parts of the world hate us is that when Americans visit other countries and try to ‘fit in,’ we never learned any really useful phrases. So we sound like idiots.

If you’re at a restaurant in Paris, and you are able to remember how to say “I have a spoon” in French, your waiter won’t be impressed by your cross-cultural gesture, he’ll think you’re a patronizing buffoon.  It’s classic American ego to think that a handful of Berlitz phrases tossed around allows you to ‘fit in.’

If we want our friends abroad to welcome future generations of rich, spoiled American college kids, foreign language classes should teach phrases we could actually use in Germany, France, or Spain, for example–

Die meisten Amerikaner sind anders als die Leute auf “Jersey Shore.” (Most Americans are different than the people on “Jersey Shore.”

Je souhaite que mon pays ne cesse de se mêler dans les affaires des autres nations et commencer à s’inquiéter de nos propres problèmes. (I wish my country would stop meddling in the affairs of other nations and start worrying about our own problems.)

Fue todo culpa nuestra que la economía mundial colapsó hace un tiempo. Lo sentimos! (It was mostly our fault that the global economy collapsed a while ago. Sorry!)

<the preceeding comedy idea was brought to you by Google Translate>


I’ve always been a student of language–in fact, when I was fourteen I invented my own alphabet. Because as a junior-high kid with a clarinet and a briefcase (?!), I could afford to be even weirder. I also own the book ‘Winnie-the-Pooh‘  in seven different languages, including the Latin version, which is the only book in Latin to ever make the New York Times bestseller list…Anyway, after my zwei Jahre of German, I figured college French wouldn’t be too difficile.

I was wrong. I didn’t realize it would be a ‘total immersion’ class, obviously named for the drowning sensation students feel when they’re only allowed to speak A LANGUAGE THEY DON’T KNOW HOW TO SPEAK YET! It may work for some, but I just kept wanting to scream, “I don’t KNOW how to ask it ‘en français,’ because this is SUPPOSED to be Française 101!” Other than being able to…count things, I’ve retained nothing from two semesters of French class.

Since I switched to Team Judaism a few years ago, I’ve had every intention of learning Hebrew, but it’s a little daunting. I have a hard enough time writing English letters, since I’ve typed everything for the past twenty-five years. To say nothing of the whole ‘right-to-left’ thing. Makes me wonder if there are any dyslexic cantors. Which would be a great name for a band–Dyslexic Cantors.

Having lived in New York, Chicago, and L.A., I’ve had a pretty multicultural life. Based on the random phrases I’ve picked up, I think I can handle just about any situation:

I can say “I want to be your friend” in Japanese, in case I’m in Tokyo and…want to be somebody’s friend.

I can greet someone in Warsaw with a hearty “Jak sie masz,” but unfortunately, I won’t know how to tell him I want to be his friend.

When I travel through Russia, I will only be able to drink or say goodbye to people.

In Italy, I will be able to talk about anything that is mentioned in the song “Caro mio ben.”

It’s worse to know a little bit of a foreign language than to be blissfully ignorant. Here’s why. If you happened to pull out just the right phrase for the situation, the person whose native language you just ‘spoke’ will think you really speak the language and start a conversation. Meanwhile, you’ve already used all the conversaitonal Farsi you remember, so you stand there mute while Guy Who Speaks Farsi thinks you’re either stupid, or that you were mocking him.

I’m not sure how Mrs. Dashiff (again with the names!) did it, but she managed to instill a deep, lasting knowledge of the most pedestrian German interactions (“What are you doing?” “I’m practicing the violin.” “Are you tired?” “Yes.”). But to be fair, and to her credit, I also still remember the first four lines of Heinrich Heine’s lyrical and wistful poem, “Die Lorelei”.

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin,
Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

I don’t remember what it means, exactly, but if I’m ever in a bar in the middle of Hamburg, I’m using it. At least I won’t be asking where the nearest McDonald’s is.

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