Monday, October 24, 2011

Why must it all be sexual?

When learning a new language, we all make mistakes. That's normal. Native speakers are generally patient and kind. Generally. The thing is... there is only so much I (as a foreign national, trying my best to learn their language) can get away with.

Take Thailand, for instance. Thai is a damn hard language to learn: they have 46 graphemes (symbols, so to speak) that with 10 "accent marks" represent more than 100 possible sounds. In my mother tongue, Spanish, we attach one (1) phoneme (sound) to every grapheme. It's super simple. It's easy. English is not quite as easy, what with short and long vowels and all, but it's easier than Thai. I could get away with my Thai because the people noted I was trying real hard. Also, I made it my mission to learn only a few phrases to help me survive - but to learn then perfectly. My mission was to pronounce them so well that, if with eyes covered, even the Thais couldn't tell my nationality.

My plan worked. My numbers were awesome. My "how much does it cost?" and my "No way, man, too expensive!" were both colloquial, current, and cool.

Until I asked for bananas...

You see, in Thailand, the word for bananas is very, very, very similar to the word for penis. The way I remember it, banana sounds /kloo-EH/ and penis sounds /KLUH-eh/. Or something like that. And when I said it, even today, when I say it, the difference is perfectly clear. I am clearly saying banana banana banana. There is no reason why I would say "penis" in public. Still, there was an awkward moment when I kept asking a man how much he would charge me for his penis...

Or the time that, when trying to teach my Thai senior students how to properly pronounce the /th/, I stuck my tongue out, grabbed it, showed it to them... and was later accused of masturbating in front of my students, because the tongue is a sexual organ in Thailand.

I seriously wonder how I was not fired nor deported.

Now, you'd think that these pronunciation issues happen only with weird Asian languages. Wrong. Look at what happened to me in Germany.

So there I was, talking to my German father at the dinning table. He was telling me all about a trip he was planning on making to some island somewhere to see some awesome bird gathering that only happens once a year. Or something like that. I am not yet skilled enough to understand every word he says, so I must try to get it by context and main words. Anyway. Island. Birds. Awesome.

Try to follow me here: the German word for bird is Vogel. The plural form (that is, more than one bird) is Vögel. So far so good, right? The German language uses the prefix ge- for many things, such as gegooglet (meaning, googled), gepostet (meaning, posted)... So, in trying to be witty and cute and all-knowing, I said to him, "Ah, dann wirst du gevögelt!", meaning something along the lines of, "Ah, then you'll be filled with birds!"

Only gevögelt does not have anything to do with birds.

After chuckling for a little bit, he explained that word actually described that which men and women do with the lights off. Or on. But in a very, very nasty way.

And thus I return to my original question: Why must it all be sexual?!

PS: I'm still blushing...

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