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Aug. 6, 2014

Lost in Translation

August 6, 2014

Ni hao. Xiexie. Hola. Gracias. Olá. Obrigado. Obrigada. Jambo. Asante. Namaste. Dhanyavad.

Hello and thank you. That’s it. That’s pretty much the extent of the language skills I took with me when I went on a trip around the world, visiting 11 countries in eight weeks. Well, I suppose I can also count to 10 in Spanish. I also know a tiny bit of basic French from high school, but that didn’t help in the countries we went to.

Honestly, I’m pretty embarrassed by that. How much easier would it have been to be able to converse in the native language instead of relying on the fact that there was usually someone around who spoke English and could translate?

It’s pretty pathetic that everywhere else in the world I found plenty of people who could speak my language and yet I could only say a few basic things in theirs. I met multi-lingual adults and children in every country we stopped in and there I was, unable to have even a short conversation with anyone unless it was in English.

I am a little proud of myself for picking up things here and there—like eventually learning the characters for “exit” in China or understanding how much something was at a market in Brazil because I picked out the word “four” and understanding quite a few signs in Mexico and Costa Rica. I learned what the Swahili proverb on the kanga I got in Tanzania said ("Every good thing comes from God") by using my iPhone to translate. But that was pretty much it—a pretty poor performance from an “educated” woman.

China was our first stop and clearly I wasn’t going to be picking up a lot there. The characters and sounds are so very different from English that I was pretty much lost.

Nowhere was this more apparent than sitting in the emergency room with my colleague (dislocated shoulder) at midnight where no one spoke English. Our hotel had sent along a young man to translate, but talking about medical procedures was a bit beyond what he knew. I ended up calling the professor we were working with there and luckily he picked up the phone in the middle of the night to act as translator.

I had another moment of panic the next day when I jumped in a cab alone and only after we started moving realized neither of us spoke each other’s language. Once again, my iPhone saved me as I brought up the website of the hotel I wanted to go to.

However, once we got to Mexico and Costa Rica, where so many of the words look and sound familiar, I started to think, “Heck, I could learn Spanish. If I was here long enough, I bet I could pick it up.” I’ve never had that thought before. Not even when I was talking French in high school. It always seemed out of reach. But being there, being immersed in another culture sparked a curiosity and even a desire.

Bill VanPatten, professor of Spanish and second language studies in the Department of Romance and Classical Studies, is internationally known for his work in second language acquisition and instruction. He approaches it scientifically and says everyone can learn a second language. Learn more by watching his video and reading his opinions in the FACULTY VOICE: Language of Success.

VanPatten believes that students gain a true appreciation for and sense of globalization when studying language and encourages them to participate in study abroad to gain advanced proficiency.

Paige Hook, a recent graduate who double majored in English and French, did just that when she went on a study abroad trip to France. At the time, she was an English major but after her experience decided she absolutely needed to double major adding a French major to her studies. Check out her video and story in the STUDENT VIEW: Passion for Bridging Cultures to learn more about her experiences.

Language is becoming more and more important as everything is becoming more global. Our ability to communicate no matter where we are is key to success, whether in a boardroom, hospital, village, farm, classroom or laboratory.

This world is a big place and Spartans are all over it—tackling problems, changing lives and making a difference. 斯巴达意志. Espartanos Will. Waspartani Will. स्पार्टन विल. No matter how you say it, Spartans Will.


Lisa Mulcrone
Editor, MSUToday


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