Are you making funny of me?
To brush my teeth, to shower, and toothpaste were my newest Norwegian words, and with these latest linguistic tools, my Norwegian homework assignment was to ask people what they did before breakfast. I think that is what the teacher said. It didn’t matter, the exercise was to make a conversation with some Norwegians using the words that I had just learned. I am not exactly sure about the logic behind learning the words for your daily routine before social phrases such as “are you single?” or “let’s have a beer”, but that was how it was in Norwegian class. Each week it was a different theme, and our field trips for the class were straightforward adventures to the grocery store where we would be forced to find vegetables and count in Norwegian. These were not the kinds of scenarios that were necessarily easy to translate into adult work or social situations, but the best way to deal with it, was to realize that as an adult learning a second language in another country, you will feel stupid and just have some fun with it.
The majority of people that you meet around the world though are trying to learn English. It was a great exercise as an American to have lived outside of the USA where English was not the first language because now I know what it feels like to put a string of words together, just to get an ice cream, that must sound like I just crawled out from under a rock. To some degree, I was a bit of a cheat in this regard because Norwegians speak English flawlessly. I really didn’t have to learn to speak Norwegian. I have always had a lot of respect for people trying to learn my own language, but I now know first hand just how humiliating it can feel to be deficient in a language as an adult. But one thing is certain, that you have to speak, and the people who manage the best while learning a second language are those who just like to talk. I learned from them that it is more important just to communicate rather than to be perfect.
In the process, something funny is guaranteed to come out. Even funny was a word that could be funny between native and non-native speakers. I worked with a Swedish woman in graduate school who spoke perfect English. Scandinavians in general speak English so well that it is difficult to place their slight accent unlike Italians or Spanish or Germans. But there was one thing she could not get right, how to use the word fun when she meant fun and the word funny when she meant funny. In exasperation, she would ask us, “Was it fun or funny?” Years later, I met another Scandinavian, a perfect Norwegian Viking this time, and he also spoke flawless English, but could not use fun and funny when he meant one or the other.
I had the opportunity to discuss the topic of fun and funny one night with two Norwegians and an Italian. It started with a Norwegian meal, brown cheese and akevit. Neither tastes that great but as you drink more akevit (a Norwegian spirit made from…potatoes), it no longer matters. I brought up the issue of fun versus funny after a few sips of akevit, “Sometimes you guys use funny when you mean to say fun. Like, it was funny last night when you really mean it was fun last night. Or we can do something funny.” Of course, I then had to explain the complexities of how to use fun and funny. Sometimes something can be both fun and funny simultaneously, and funny does not always mean that something is “ha ha” funny because it can also mean “strange” funny. Within a short time, we realized that in the normal course of any English conversation, it was nearly impossible not to use the word funny, properly or improperly. It was even less clear by the end of the night when one is to use fun or funny, but it no longer mattered.
I am not always so responsible as the designated native English speaker. Some words or phrases are better left unedited because a non-native speaker articulates a feeling or event more colorfully. The Viking once complimented me on an introductory speech that I gave for a very close friend of mine to a group at work. “That was a cozy speech.” I knew what he meant, that it was a warm speech, but he used cozy, which made the speech seem even more intimate in English so I did not bother to change it. I later would learn just how important the word cozy is to Norwegians, and that there is even a verb for it, which has really no direct translation in English. When I heard “are you making funny of me?” it was too funny to correct.
“Are you making funny of me?” was interestingly a phrase permuted by other non-native speakers as well. A young Frenchman sounded beautiful in English because of his heavy French accent, but sometimes I would have to work to clarify his meaning. Once, what I heard was, “Janice, are you making love of me?” I was definitely confused for a moment. I then realized that he was trying to say, “Are you making laugh of me?” which was a very clever way to ask “Are you making fun of me?” if you could not think of the exact words in English. It was easy for me to tease him about this mistake, but it was a perfect example of a person utilizing only the words that he knew to express himself, which is what you are to do to in order to learn a new language.
I did attempt to learn French once because most of my friends in Norway were French. It was quickly over because at my age, my mouth was no longer capable of such linguistic gymnastics. It was like doing the splits past the age of twelve. But I didn’t need the class to know that in French, the H’s are pronounced where they do not exist and not pronounced where they do exist. It was a constant source of discussion between the French and me. “You can say the “H”, why not say it where it belongs and not where it isn’t?” All words were subsequently subject to modification by the French; happy became ‘appy and airport became h’airport which has an altogether different meaning. I started to speak “French” myself. It was my not so secret pedantic joke amongst the French, and I am not sure in the end if they were making fun of each other or me because it was perhaps an easy way to make me “love”.
It is easy for me as a native English speaker to move around the world and use my own language. It is also respectful to return the favor and try to learn a few words of the language of the country in which I am traveling. About ten words in any language can get me pretty far in terms of being polite and what I need or where I want to go. There are the obvious words, such as please and thank you, hello and goodbye, but then there are always keywords specific to that language that can be used to express a thought or feeling in various situations. Cozy as mentioned above is such a word for Norwegians. In Italian, the word “brutto,” which literally means ugly can be used to describe the weather, a person’s personality or behavior, as well as the obvious, or just how your day is going.
It is fun to make fun when you speak a language imperfectly, but in my mind, English sounds more beautiful with the imperfections inflicted upon it with a French or Italian or any other accent. I have a gorgeous Italian friend who always wants to speak English perfectly, without an accent. Why would she want to do that? Honestly, I have sometimes wanted to have my own accent because I don’t like the way I as an American pronounce my R’s. And I am from the Midwest.
Imperfect words spoken signify an exchange with someone from a different culture. An accent inspires me to engage especially a stranger in conversation because it can be fun…or funny.
©2013 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com