brooklynmonk

Insane Polyglots

In Linguistics and Language Learning on December 7, 2008 at 3:55 pm

Their brains are just different.

By Antonio Graceffo

 

 

When the aliens mother ship finally arrives, Pramjeet Singh will be the only one who can talk to them. He’ll 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 won’t understand, because our brains just don’t work that way.

 

 

 

Learning 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 can’t quite understand.

 

The crazy people are always the most fun, so let’s 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 Valdma’s home country, at that time, was not yet a member of the EU, he couldn’t used Estonian as his mother tongue. So, instead, he chose another language, I don’t remember if it was Russian or German. He passed the mother tongue exam and began his studies. I don’t remember what Valdma’s 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 didn’t 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 Valdma’s life may sound, it wasn’t 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. I guess they were trying to overcompensate for Hitler’s “final solution.” 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 of him. 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 o’clock class I passed Valdma on the stairs. The school secretary was a village woman who loved to gossip.

 

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 didn’t 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 can’t 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 doesn’t 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 world’s 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 live there. 

 

“Why doesn’t 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 won’t 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 husband’s 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.” Said Don. “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 languages.

 

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 don’t exactly speak English. So this was a bad example. But you know what I mean.)

 

Pramjeet Singh’s theory went even further. He believed, somehow, that you didn’t need to learn a language to be able to understand it, speak it, or write it, because all forms of human communication where the same. When we worked together on this translation, we needed very specialized dictionaries, which dealt with chemical properties and processes. Often we couldn’t 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 don’t have English.”

 

“They don’t 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 couldn’t read.

 

“Don’t you see it?” He asked.

 

The answer was. No, I didn’t see it. When I told Don about this incident later, he said. “Pramjeet Singh exists on such a higher intellectual plane, he doesn’t 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 couldn’t find specialized translators for their subject matter. “Pramjeet Singh doesn’t 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 though 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, I’m no Pramjeet Singh. And I don’t 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.

 

When the alien mother ship finally arrives, Pramjeet Singh will be the only one who can talk to them. He’ll make lots of money and they will put him in charge. Maybe Valdma already is one. 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 won’t understand, because our brains just don’t work that way.

 

 

Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at amazon.com. See his vieos on youtub.

http://ca.youtube.com/results?search_query=antonio+graceffo&search_type=&aq=f

 

His website is speakingadventure.com

Join him on facebook.com

Contact Antonio: antonio@speakingadventure.com

 

 

 

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