Languages and Bikes


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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  1. From Hamlet to Csík | Take Away the Takeaway

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