Languages and Bikes

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People often ask me how many languages I speak and how I manage to learn them. I have a hard time answering the first question; I reply, “It depends on what you mean by ‘speak.'” Languages require upkeep; if I don’t practice a language, I become hesitant in it, and my accent grows thicker. Good pronunciation is much like playing in tune: essential to the music. Considering all of this, I often believe that I speak only English. But I can converse in several languages, read silently and aloud in a few more, and bumble around in a few more. The challenge is to get better at them.

As for the second question, how I do it, there’s nothing I “do” except steep myself in the language, way above my level. I don’t learn languages systematically. Or rather, the systematic learning is just one part of the whole. I learn by listening–to songs, poetry, prose, everyday speech–and sticking out my neck and making mistakes, saying things I don’t know how to say yet. A sequence of lessons can help. But if I were to limit myself to language classes, I wouldn’t get very far. This has less to do with the quality of the classes than with the limitations of language classes overall. I need the confrontation with words, sounds, and constructions that I don’t yet understand. For instance, yesterday I made some mistakes in my translation of a Hungarian folk song, but those mistakes were important. Two mistakes I caught on my own; at least two more I saw with help.

Sometimes it’s good to wade through language, with minnows around the ankles and pebbles and mud in the toes; sometimes it’s worthwhile to take up one of the pebbles and look at it for a while. From the photo above, which I took in Albertirsa in September, and from some other sources, I learned that there are at least five Hungarian words for bicycle: “bringa,” “kerékpár” (literally “a pair of wheels”), “bicaj,” “bicikli,” and the lovely old-fashioned “vasparipa,” “iron steed.” “Bringa doki” (in the photo) clearly means “bike doctor.” “Bringázz a munkába” (found elsewhere) means “bike to work.” The etymology of “bringa” is unclear. “Bringa” and “vasparipa” are my favorites here; I bet that if I refer to my future bike as a “vasparipa,” I’ll get some quizzical looks.

Wait: it seems that there are even more words for “bicycle”! Holy spokes; this is getting better and better. Here’s a list: vas, bicikli, vasparipa, bicaj, bringa, kenyérgőzös (“bread-steamer?”), vasszamár (“iron donkey”), velocipéd, kétkerekű (“two-wheeler”), drótszamár (“wire donkey”–a third favorite now), cajga, canga.

This stuff is both fun and substantial. I can learn a lot even when puttering around. That’s another great thing about learning languages: there are times for intensive study, times for utter bewilderment, and times for sitting back and enjoying a word or ten.

 

I made a small addition to this piece after posting it.

 

 

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

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