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Speaking The Same Language: The Gift We Take For Granted

May 30, 2017

I illustrate articles for The Rumpus. One of the most interesting was Nerozumieš: You Don’t Understand.

It’s a first-person account of an American who moves to Slovakia to teach English in a small vocational secondary school.

A brave move, because he doesn’t speak Slovak. He figures he’ll learn it as he goes along.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Strangers introduce themselves to me in Slovak. On len hovorí po anglický, my friends interrupt. He only speaks English.

Nerozumieš? the stranger asks me, a little unsure. You don’t understand?blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

The essay conjures up intense feelings of isolation, because so often, the author can’t understand what others are saying.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

“It’s hard here, being trapped in my language. People look at me like I’m stupid
and I think everyone is insulting me to my face.”blank vertical space, 24 pixels high
Haggard disheveled distraught guy in prison uniform behind barbed wire trapped held captive because he doesn't understand language

blank vertical space, 24 pixels highThe author knows some Spanish. He took classes in German, but has forgotten most of it. English is, essentially, his only language.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Like many Americans, I’m a monoglot. There isn’t an immigrant in my family
since the 19th century and though very little of me is ancestrally English, these
are the words with which I understand the world.

I have wished for years that I had tried to learn another language at an earlier
age. I wish my parents exposed me, in whatever way possible, to languages other than English.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high
little baby with full diaper tells his long-suffering mom I make poop in nine different languages

blank vertical space, 24 pixels highThe author’s friends are limited to those who can speak some English and understand him– at least to some extent.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

My best friends are the school principal, the pawnbroker, the preteen boys who
let me join their soccer games, the upholstery cleaner, and the pharmacist… Each time I meet them for beer or food, they point to items in the room and speak a
sound I find difficult to retain. 

Zemiak, they say, lifting a boiled potato from their soup.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high
Google Translate parody of Google doodles hand dropping Slovak word in mouth letters chew Slovak detected letter E spits out potato

blank vertical space, 24 pixels highDo some people have a better grasp of language than they let on? The author’s mother had her suspicions.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

My mother likes to tell a story about her first trip abroad, in her fifties as a chaperone to my sister’s Girl Scout troop: she and my sister became separated from the group in downtown Paris and had to take a taxi back to their hotel… the taxi driver, who explained in broken English that he didn’t understand her, ended up taking an extremely long route through the chaotic midday traffic. My frustrated mother demanded he stop the car, and then he made a few turns and they found
the hotel.

He understood me, she will say. He just wanted to cheat me out of an extra buck.

Maybe he just didn’t speak English, Mom, I will say.

He knew exactly what I was saying.

How do you know?

He knew.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high
French taxi driver circling globe en route to Eiffel Tower woman passenger says stop the car, you robber, he replies he doesn't speak English he's an honest man

blank vertical space, 16 pixels highDespite setbacks, the author soldiers on:blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

I have labeled everything in my flat with yellow Post-It notes: OKNO sticks to
the window at my side and STOLIČKA to the empty chair beside me. I imagine scenarios and I rehearse them on paper, to the walls, sitting on the toilet.

blank vertical space, 24 pixels highman sitting on toilet with Slovak phrase book saying Je to sídlo zadarmo meaning Is this seat taken?

blank vertical space, 16 pixels highHere’s his concluding paragraph:
blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

I know that to my neighbors, who can surely hear me through these thin, communist-era walls, I must sound like a fool. Čia je to lampa? I say to myself. Whose lamp is it? over and over again. Tvoja! I imagine them shouting. Yours!
It’s your lamp! I know that my students will giggle each morning when I wave
to the janitor and return his
dobré ráno. But I am practicing, I am blundering—
I am trying, a word at a time, to speak myself out of the silence.

blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

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Thoughts? I’d appreciate your feedback.

You might also enjoy Milkmaid Leaves House On Prairie. It features illustrations for another Rumpus essay in which a woman looks back on her life, reflecting on what she was wearing at the time.

blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

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About Mark: I’m an illustrator specializing in humor, branding, social media, and content marketing. I create images that get content seen and shared.

You can view my portfolio, and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Questions? Send me an email.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. RKLikesReeses permalink
    June 2, 2017 5:08 PM

    Wonderful, wonderful – in every possible way. Visited the site: loved how your drawings brought the words to life in my mind. Re languages – I was the kid who could “pick up” new words, foreign words, & accents with scary ease. Still can. I know bits of Hebrew, Latin, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, Gaelic, Spanish, & big buckets of French. They’ve come in handy over the years. LOL – I can begin speaking a sentence in English then wander thru several languages on the way to the end., usually without losing my way. 🙃 What the author did was, I think, brave & exciting. WOW!! Imagine how wildly his neurons were firing, trying to keep pace with his environment!! Thank you for sharing this, Mark! LOVED IT!! ❤️❤️❤️


    • June 4, 2017 1:22 PM

      My dear RK! I knew you were a woman of many talents, especially art and music, but I didn’t know you were a language guru as well! I stand in awe of people who know more than one language– sometimes many more. It is emphatically a talent I do not possess. I took French in high school, Spanish in college, and was hopelessly out of my depth in both. One oddity: I excelled in… Latin. I took two years of it in high school. Not only did I understand and enjoy it, I suddenly understood English grammar. Latin informed my English, and gave me a much better command of my native tongue. I was amazed by it then, and still feel that way. But when you take two years of French and come away only knowing how to say The record player is broken (a phrase I memorized), well, you know you’re a goner!!

      Your ability to “begin speaking a sentence in English then wander thru several languages on the way to the end” brings back memories of a long-ago walking tour in Ireland. There were two older Dutchwomen in the group, and they did the same thing– seamlessly. They spoke Dutch, English, Flemish, German, and French. When I expressed my amazement and admiration, they laughed and said everyone in The Netherlands could do the same; that the languages just seeped across the border from the neighboring countries, and everyone picked ’em up. Makes sense, I suppose, but it still seems incredible– at least to me!!

      I agree: the author of that Rumpus post was one brave and nervy guy– nothing like total immersion learning!! I’m so happy you enjoyed the post, and I really enjoyed hearing about your linguistic prowess– and thanks a milión (that’s ‘million’ in Slovak, as I’m sure you know) for your lovely comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • RKLikesReeses permalink
        June 5, 2017 10:38 AM

        LATIN!! So cool!!!! I’ll bet you could do declensions! LOL – that’s probably the wrong way to say it – does anyone “do” declensions?” I’m envious of that. Always wanted to take Latin classes, mostly bec of what you’re saying: those roots and the grammatical foundation! But the little I know of Latin I learned from singing it for all those years. LOTS of Latin, but, with the exception of the scores to “Carmina Burana” and “Catulli Carmina” (Orff) all of it was sacred music, not especially helpful in a profane world – Haaa! And the curiosity to ask what it all meant, too. Got a good start thanks to my parents, who made sure I could read 6th grade English before I went to kindergarten and who, esp my Mom, loved the etymology of words.
        Your French phrase – that’s a hoot! Did your high school use those language labs? We’re not toooooo far apart in age – just curious. We had separate classes in conversational French. They were via the tapes in the labs. We had to memorize ALL of them. One was about John’s visit to the ski resort and how he wanted to lend someone his skis. Weird…well, maybe I’m recalling it badly. Anyway, all I have, truly, is bits & pieces jumbled together, words gathered over decades and treasured like dear friends.

        Milión!!! Merçi mille fois! Now I can say I speak (or at least read) Slovak!

        (not proofing this – have to run – so I hope it’s legible)


        • June 7, 2017 3:40 PM

          Declensions?? They always made me decrench my teeth! 😁

          I, too, got my first taste of Latin singing hymns in church. I’m a lifelong Catholic, and grew up pre-Vatican II. I learned Latin (phonetically) when I was an altar boy. Man, The Confiteor in Latin was tough! I had to mumble a lot… 😊

          I’ll bet we did have the same French language labs in high school! Yes, there was one about skiing… was it called Au Secours (Help!), by any chance? I only remember that phrase because just before they passed out the test papers for the French III Regents, I wrote “Au secours!!” in big block-letters on a piece of paper, and held it up to make people laugh. I passed, but I don’t think it was by much!!

          Well, I guess it’s time for me to sing The Monkeys Theme Song: “Hey, hey, nous somme les singes–!” 🐵🙈🙉🙊

          Liked by 1 person

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