Monday, October 14, 2013

Speaking in Tongues

My Dad has called me a space cadet for years.  When I was a kid, I thought it was pretty awesome:  yeah!  I’m a Space Cadet!  I’ll explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations…!  Took me years to figure out I wasn’t on the road to some cool Star Trek job, and when I understood why he was calling me a space cadet, I hotly denied it.  Now, I just own it.  I’m distracted and forgetful enough to worry whether I have warning signs of Alzheimer’s.  I carry a notebook pretty much everywhere so I can write down pretty much everything.  I did have a handle on my own shortcomings, but this assignment seems to have made my forgetfulness, my distractedness, much, much worse.  I thought it was the effects of missing the family, of culture shock, of hormonal change, and I’m sure all of that plays a role, but a big part of it is that I am too busy listening to *how* my co-workers talk to listen to what they’re actually saying.

I’ll start with the easy one first:  my British boss.  He’s an Army Colonel from Scotland.  His accent is very mild – I wouldn’t guess “Scotland” at all except for words with a double “o”, like “good” and “look”.  Honestly, hearing him say them just makes me giggle; I try not to be obvious about it.  And he says “f*(k” ALL the time, except when he says it, it’s as inoffensive as little old ladies eating cucumber sandwiches; when the Americans – and Germans – use that sort of language, they sound like a garbage disposal grinding rocks and spewing excrement.  But I think the funniest thing about his accent is that my Turkish co-workers can’t understand him.  When he leaves after talking to them, they turn to me for a translation. 
I love listening to the Italian Lieutenant Colonel in charge of our section.  His English is perfect, but he, like most of the Italians here, throws an extra syllable on the end-a of almost-a every word-a, especially when he gets excited.  So there I am, grinning like an idiot as he provides important instructions in his movie-stereotype Italian-accented English.  Fortunately, he’s an awesome guy and doesn’t seem at all put out by my lack of seriousness.
Speaking of movie stereotypes:  Croatian Guy finally arrived and his accent would make him perfect for any Russian movie baddie.  We call him Croatian Guy because we knew he was coming from Croatia, but we didn’t know his name until he showed up.  He introduced himself as Godot, and it took my brain a bit to catch up with his agile and subtle humor.  Godot, as in the play; his name isn’t really Godot.  Love talking with Croatian Guy; his dialogue is slow and heavily-accented, but his English is perfect and his mind and wit are sharp.
I can’t even figure out what distinguishes Czech Guy’s accent – although I listen intently to everything he says to try to isolate what makes a Czech accent different from Polish, or Romanian, or Belgian.  We have two Czech guys here, and their English is nearly perfect in grammar and vocabulary, but their accents really set them apart.  One of them was speaking English on the phone to someone in another country, and they each realized – by the accent – that they must be speaking to a fellow Czech, so they switched to their native language.  The best I can do is say it sounds “bubblier” than English spoken by an American.  They seem to use too many syllables, but not as obviously as the Italians.  Whatever – they’re fun to listen to, and I worry that I hurt Czech Guy's feelings by laughing at nearly everything he says. 
The Germans come in three varieties:  English accent, American accent, and German accent.  Somehow I find the Germans speaking English the least surprising – perhaps because I’ve lived in Germany, so this isn’t new to me.  Still, the Germans seem most comfortable with our language; they have a near-complete grasp of idiom as well as vocabulary and grammar. 
To help you understand why I find people speaking English marvelous and terribly distracting, try this:  imagine going about your day in a foreign language, maybe that Spanish you learned in high school.  I can speak enough Spanish to get myself in trouble in Mexico, and enough German to get along in Germany, but my co-workers are ensuring the security of our nations in ESL.
I am in continuous awe of the folks here at NATO.  Meetings here should be as boring as any other Dilbert meeting anywhere, but the most mundane subject is inspiring because it's in ENGLISH!  I look around, and I'm the only native-English-speaker in the room.  (I'm often the only woman, too, but that's a different blog entry.)  I was in a meeting last week with people from eight countries, everyone intelligently discussing budget and planning, except that one guy - there's always that one guy who doesn't track with everyone else - but he doesn't get it in ENGLISH!  In the U.S., I'd think he's an idiot.  Here, I marvel at his genius!
There's so much more to be said on this subject, but I don't want to bore you, and I do want to post this...perhaps I'll add a part 2 someday.
This post brought to you by Red Hot Chili Peppers:  Californication, Dani California, and Snow

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