Lucky Dragon

Sensually Transmitted Wanderlust

I teach Japanese and Sociology/Anthropology as a private tutor in London, Travelcard Zones 1-2. I commit to only one student at a time and currently I am free. E-MAIL me for details.

hildhood impressions last. One of such with profound implications was a picture of the language tree in my mother's Introduction To Linguistics.

The picture suggested that languages were alive: just like plants they could grow, whither, die and then come alive again. They could cross-pollinate, blossom and bear fruit. My young fascinated mind wandered away thinking of all ramifications and possibilities of that theory.

In the phrasebook my Grandpa gave me 40s style black-and-white pictures were captioned in German, English, French and Italian. I pored over the pages until I noticed that some words were similar. Very soon, figuring out the rules of such similarities firmly took over sandpit schmoozing with snivelly peers in my list of priorities.

Thus I discovered the joy of languages. At six, I found myself watching Belorussian TV and reading Belorussian kiddy books. Some bits immediately made sense, some sounded faintly familiar, some were completely foreign. The pliable synapses in my young brain quickly adapted to the challenge.


The same year, during a summer vacation in Latvia, I discovered Latin script. I started picking up Latvian from blingual signs. Much to my mother's horror, I took to writing Russian in Latin letters. I was to start school in September and there would be no good grades for using Romanised transcription.

I began to learn English at about the same time and so my linguistic quest started slowly but surely gathering momentum. My Mom played with me a table game where you had to match pictures and foreign words. I took an instant liking to English. I faintly disliked German. French spelling with all the extra letters and diacritics made me think of the French as pretentious and vain.

In primary school, my favourite book was an unabridged edition of Gargantua and Pantagruel, famously plastered with short bits and long passages in Latin as well as other languages. I find a new pleasure in deciphering those with the help of a book of Latin grammer and a dictionary. I immensely enjoyed thumbing through a book of Latin proverbs, sounding out the words, trying to wrap my mind around ancient wisdom. Some meanings I understood only decades later.

Japanese proved a really doozy to master. I spent one and half years ther: I studied English from Russian textbooks, but when I majored in Japanese at university we learnt Japanese via English (until the end of the second year when we got onlly native teachers). In Thailand where I spent 6 years, best Thai textbooks were Japanese-made. That came in handy at my evening job in a Thai-Japanese joint venture, where I was busy bridging cultures and working ethics. I still remember the bewilderment when the first page of a Sanskrit textbook made sense to me: I recognized lots of words that Thais use like we use Latin and Greek.

My language tree kept branching out: I figured the rules of thumb of reading Japanese characters the Chinese way. My first student summer job was for a Swiss-Austrian company where all meetings were connducted in German - I had no choice but to keep up. Life in Southeast Asia exposed me to Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkienese - Southern Chinese dialects. One month of hitch-hiking in Bulgaria opened my eyes to the fact that local newspapers sound very much like very formal archaic written Russian. Shop signs in Romania made a lot of sense thanks to my smattering of Latin as did Sinic restaurant names in Hanoi. Speaking Laotian only took adjusting Thai tones differently and remembering a couple of hundreds new words.

In Holland, thanks to my background in German, I guessed the answers in my university placement test and ended up straight in an intermediate course. My first ever Dutch class was about history of universal suffrage in the Netherlands, quite a departure from the regular "is this a pen? no, it's a pencil" grind. In just half a year, my teacher Camil Crone almost single-handedly drummed ten thousand Dutch words and a full course of grammar, writing and reading analysis into my head. And, as if by magic, Flemish and Afrikaans also started making sense.

The old saw has it that it becomes a cinch after the sixth language. Even more so when there is pressure for survival. Driving in the Argentine countryside or working in an all-Thai office did not leave much choice as I personally find using body language to explain myself embarassing. Three weeks of independent travel in China did more to my Mandarin than a year of formal classes. I could have fights with waiters (an unfortunate necessity at times) and haggle at souks like a professional in Morocco thanks to a crush course of ninety Pimsleur French lessons. But I am most proud of how I could communicate with our Hungarian landlady and buy tickets in Budapest with just a phrasebook!

The fact that producing sounds in certain combinations conveys to people an infinite variety of ideas, facts and emotions is an ever-lasting kick for me. World languages use up the whole paradigm of all possible word orders and sounds, yet what we say is pretty much the same wherever you go. The bromide that we all are just humans, one species, never mind the race, language or creed, dawns on you like a drawn-out epiphany as odd sounds people make in foreign lands start making sense to you.

Still, it is the differences that make it all so fascinating. Every new language gives a different angle of view, a flat picture of trite stereotypes about the world begins to evolve into a colour-rich three-dimensional wonder that it truly is.


Sensually Transmitted Wanderlust
Sensually Transmitted Wanderlust

1996-2013 Artour Mitski

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