International Writers Magazine: Learning Languages
Their brains are just different
the aliens mother ship finally arrives, Pramjeet Singh will be the
only one who can talk to them. Hell make lots of money and
they will put him in charge. The rest of us will be sent out to
labour in the fields, and if we complain, Pamjeet Singh and his
UFO buddies will say, Shut up and eat your pudding.
But we wont understand, because our brains just dont
work that way.
a new language rewires your brain. Could learning a new language make
you crazy? I have known some linguists who were completely off their
nut. Others seem to exist on some intellectual plane that the rest of
us could never achieve and cant quite understand.
The crazy people are always the most fun, so lets start with them.
When I was studying in Germany, we had a student from Estonia, call
him Valdma. At the school, we chose a three language combination, including
our mother tongue, as long as all three languages were used in the EU.
Because Valdmas home country, at that time, was not yet a member
of the EU, he couldnt used Estonian as his mother tongue. So,
instead, he chose another language, I dont remember if it was
Russian or German. He passed the mother tongue exam and began his studies.
I dont remember what Valdmas official language combination
was, but he spoke and wrote eleven languages fluently.
Like many Eastern European intellectuals at that time, he had already
earned a PHD in his home country, but his degree was not recognized,
so he came to Germany and started over again as a freshman, in an undergraduate
program. I guess that would be enough to make most people crazy.
Most of the time, Valdma would sit in his room studying. He also prowled
the large medieval library, which occupied the upper floor of the castle,
where our university was located. It was a scene right out of
Name of the Rose. You were in a particularly remote and
dark corner of the library, your back to the massive cold stone walls,
frantically looking up a list of vocabulary, such as chemicals used
in frozen foods, in three languages, and suddenly, there was Valdma
staring at you.
To say he snuck up on people would have been unfair, since his stench
generally preceded his presence by minutes, if not hours. During the
two years that our studies overlapped, he was never known to have taken
a shower or change clothes.
Once, to break the tension of having this Slavic madman staring at me,
I almost managed a weak, hello. But like a deer that had
been frightened by the shutter of your camera, he disappeared, running
back into the dictionary section.
I think some students didnt even believe that he existed. Sadly,
the only proof we had was some grainy black-and-white photographs of
him dancing with the Yeti.
Rumours said that Valdma would use his student card to get into the
library, then steal massive, priceless translation dictionaries, hiding
them under his many layers of unwashed clothing. Since no one was willing
to strip search him, he could easily spirit these volumes back to his
room. He would then lock himself in his room until he had memorised
the entire dictionary. Afterwards, he would make another public appearance,
return the book, steal a new one, and so on. In this way, it was rumoured
he had memorised an entire shelf of dictionaries.
As enticing as Valdmas life may sound, it wasnt all fun
and games. He was apparently in love with a German student, named
Nena, who he began stalking. He managed to get inside of her room, while
she was at classes, and leave her an original French poem he had written.
He had placed the poem, a long with a single flower, on her bed, hoping
to win her over.
Instead, he creped her out, and she called in the authorities. Germany
often takes to light an approach towards insane people who pose a threat
to others. So, they allowed Valdma to stay at the university.
Valdma thought the reason Nena had been angry was because she preferred
poems written in Spanish. He spent the next several weeks learning Spanish
to absolute fluency, and left her a new poem.
At this point, Valdma must have started a new, particularly difficult
language, because he disappeared for a while. We all knew he was in
his room memorizing dictionaries, but beyond that, there was no word
Months passed and I had been hired at a local language school as a teacher.
One morning when I came in early for an eight oclock class I passed
Valdma on the stairs. The school secretary was a village woman who loved
I once asked her about one of the other teachers, who was also a student
with me at the university. She smiled, Oh yes, the Herr Prost
is a very intelligent man. Then she looked around, to make sure
no one was listening, and she whispered. He drinks. And his wife
goes with other men.
When I asked her about Valdma, she was so happy to be able to really
gossip. She poured us both a cup of coffee and spilled the beans.
Herr Valdma was hired here because he can teach any language a
German businessman would need to learn. Not to mention the fact
that he probably worked for half of what I was charging. But,
we will have to fire him. Students are complaining about his smell.
She made a face as if she had just bit into a toilet sandwich. Then
she lead me to the bathroom and showed me where the normally spotless
sink was completed coated in crud.
We suspected that he sometimes sleeps spends the night in the
classroom. He apparently bathes in the sink, and now we will have to
call someone to unclog it.
Most people were horribly repelled by Valdma, but writing this story,
nearly twenty years later, I regret that I didnt go out of my
way to speak to him. He would have been an interesting guy to get to
know, if you could get past the smell. On some level, on many levels,
I have always respected and envied him. I wish I could be half as intelligent
or half of his discipline. And, I have always wondered, was he already
insane, or did the study of too many languages make him that way? Among
the students I studied with at Germersheim there were a number of people
who were just borderline insane, or normal crazy.
Once a notice appeared on our student bulletin-board. I will be
beginning studies at Germersheim in October. I am looking for conversation
partners for: German, English, French, Italian, Swedish, Chinese
These are only the languages I remember, but the list was much longer.
He also included a chart of how well he spoke each language. He rated
himself advanced or fluent in many of them. The ending of the note was
as interesting as the beginning: I cant pay you money, but
my family owns a beautiful villa on the Sicilian coast. If you are willing
to work as my tutor, you could come live in the villa for the summer.
My family will give you food and lodging. Signed, Luigi.
When Luigi arrived, he was, believe it or not, a weirdo. He looked like
a garden gnome, but one whose father happened to be Don somebody of
the something-or-other family, and he could have you killed if he had
wanted to. Fortunately, all he wanted to do was learn languages. So,
he had spent his whole life studying languages in different countries
all over the world.
For some people, there seemed to be a fine line between genius and insanity.
But for others, it was simply an advantage.
An American professor at our university, Dr. Don, gave me a very difficult
translation to do, for a lot of money. He also gave me the phone number
of someone who could help me.
If you get stuck, call my friend Pamjeet Singh. Professor
Don told me. He is the greatest translator who ever lived, and
also my best friend. If he doesnt have an answer, he will know
how to find one. So much of what Don taught us was that being
a good translator was not predicated on being good at speaking a language
well, but on knowing how to do research, and finding the answers. Pamjeet
Singh was a master of this.
Although Pamjeet Singh was known as one of the best German-to-English
translators in the world, he was not an English native speaker. His
native tongue was Urdu but he also spoke Hindi and a number of other
Indian languages. After earning a Masters degree in Physics, in India,
he decided to learn German, and come to Germany to continue his education.
He moved to Berlin and earned a masters degree in German. Then, he entered
a PHD program and was writing a book on an area of artificial computer
intelligence, which was related to psycholinguistics. It was the only
book ever written on the subject, and Pamjeet Singh was, of course,
the worlds foremost authority in this area.
During his Phd studies, Pamjeet Singh moved to Germersheim to complete
a masters in translation, while he continued his study of psycholinguistics
and artificial intelligence. Constantly working as a lecturer and translator,
Pamjeet Singh was also writing and publishing. He was slowly becoming
wealthy, and yet lived in the basement of an old widow woman, who put
any umber of restrictions on him, as conditions that he be allowed to
Why doesnt Pamjeet Singh move out? I asked Don.
He would never do that. Don explained. The widow who
he rents the apartment from was the wife of a very famous translator.
Her husband worked in the field for about sixty-years, publishing a
number of books on the subject. He also wrote a number of dictionaries.
In addition to this, he amassed a tremendous library of very rare translation
books and specialized dictionaries. The governments of many countries
have to come to the widow, offering to buy the books from her. But she
wont sell them. They have deep emotional value for her, because
they are the legacy of her dead husband. In fact, the way Pramjeet Singh
met her is that he went to her house, to try and convince her to sell
him a few of her husbands books. When she refused outright, Pramjeet
Singh proposed that he move into her house, pay her an exorbitant rent,
but then he would have access to her husbands library. She agreed.
And Pramjeet Singh has been there ever since.
Among the translation community, there is a rumour that the widow put
Pramjeet Singh in her will, and that he will inherit the books when
she dies. Is it true?
I asked Pramjeet Singh that same question. He said. Don, I hate
that old bat. If I found out for sure she had put me in the will, I
would push her down the stairs, the same day.
Pramjeet Singh truly believed that language acquisition was the same,
no matter what the language. Since we are all capable of learning one
language, our native tongue, we must be capable of learning any language.
Sometimes, when I see little Taiwanese children speaking Chinese so
fluently, I think. They must be really smart.
I struggle through Chinese, but here, even small children speak it fluently.Dr.
Don invited me to work as a research assistant on a project he and Pramjeet
Singh were publishing on language acquisition theory. The project was
designed to study first language acquisition by children, to see if
this would unlock the key to learning other languages.
After they completed their research, and developed a written theory
of language acquisition, they wanted to put it to the test. They gathered
several volunteers from among the student body. At first, they thought
of applying the theory to learning one of the languages offered at our
school. The choices included the twelve (at that time) EU languages,
plus Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Polish. The problem was that even
if they could screen the volunteers, and eliminate people who already
spoke one of these languages, there was no way they would be able to
find test subjects who had never had any exposure, of any kind, to these
The EU languages, of course, were very common. Russian and Polish were
widely spoken in our village. And, even in the case of Chinese, we had
all been to a Chinese restaurant, or watched a kung fu movie. Instead,
they wanted a language that would be completely foreign to everyone.
Eventually, they settled on Latvian. They brought a teacher over from
Latvia, and they began studying the language, using their new techniques.
The results of their research supported their theory, basically that
learning language, any language is all the same . Latvian children find
it no harder to learn Latvian than do Mexican children learning Spanish,
or Brooklyn children learning English. (Yes, I know, some Brooklyn children
dont exactly speak English. So this was a bad example. But you
know what I mean.) Pramjeet Singhs theory went even further. He
believed, somehow, that you didnt need to learn a language to
be able to understand it, speak it, or write it, because all forms of
human communication were the same. When we worked together on this translation,
we needed very specialized dictionaries, which dealt with chemical properties
and processes. Often we couldnt find a dictionary that dealt with
these subjects, specifically.
So, Pramjeet Singh would draw on his tremendous knowledge, and go to
other sources for parallel information. One example was that our translation
dealt with preparing long-life, processed foods, which were packaged,
and shipped all over the world. There was a detailed explanation of
the chemical-freezing process, which we had to translate. No known dictionary
dealt with this process, for food.
I believe that the chemical freezing process for steel production
is similar to this one for food. Said Pramjeet Singh. So, we called
around, and got the leading dictionary for metallurgy. And, sure enough,
we found many of the answers we were looking for. Next, we needed information
about how tar was processed, and used as a preservative for food. Pramjeet
Singh suggested that tar processing was similar to rubber processing.
So, we checked with rubber manufacturers. But, the only dictionaries
we could find were produced in Italy and they translated German into
Italian and French.
When Pramjeet Singh showed me the dictionaries, he was so happy. Now
we have all of the answers. He said.
How do you figure that? I asked. These dictionaries
dont have English. They dont have to.
He said. Do you speak French and Italian? I asked.
No. Said Pramjeet Singh.
So, how will you use these dictionaries? Pramjeet Singh
looked at me like I was crazy. The answers are right here.
He said, pointing at some foreign words that I couldnt read.
Dont you see it? He asked.
The answer was. No, I didnt see it. When I told Don about this
incident later, he said. Pramjeet Singh exists on such a higher
intellectual plane, he doesnt understand that there are people
who neither see, nor understand what he does. To him all languages are
the same. Don went on to tell me about how Pramjeet Singh had
made a lot of money doing translations for financial institutions in
Switzerland, who couldnt find specialized translators for their
subject matter. Pramjeet Singh doesnt speak French, Italian,
or Romanche, or any of the Swiss languages, except German. And yet he
was able to do these translations that no one else could.
I thought about Pramjeet Singh a lot as I practiced writing My
pencil is yellow. And, Do you like my new car? in
Chinese. The point of this whole story is, Im no Pramjeet Singh.
And I dont exist on that plane.
But Don, Frank, Pramjeet Singh, Uta, or any of my old classmates would
agree. Learning another language is just another thing. Since I leaving
Germersheim, my classmate Uta has become 100% fluent in Danish. And,
Frank became fluent in French without even setting foot in a classroom.
His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at amazon.com. See his
vieos on youtube.
His website is speakingadventure.com
Join him on facebook.com
Contact Antonio: firstname.lastname@example.org
Master in the Cage
Master Hisams hands are huge and swollen, as hard as rocks.
In demonstrations, he uses them to smash granite slabs to dust
Languages in your PJs
I set up a rigid schedule of watching TV. Over several weeks, I
saw my listening and speaking grow by leaps and bounds.
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