Spirit Quest on learning languages

Spirit Quest
Parlez-vous . . ?
By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

A strange phenomenon has been manifesting itself in my brain — words and phrases in the Czech language, irrelevant and often inappropriate, have been popping into my head at all hours.

The Czech language, until I was ten years of age, was a second language for me, German being my mother tongue. I was then living in what used to be the Sudetenland, an area stretching along the border of Germany and Austria. In our city, 85% German, Czech was the second language. We children were taught Czech in school. By the time I was nine years old I could converse in basic Czech but then we were forced to flee the country when Hitler annexed it.

Just before Christmas of 1938 we arrived in Scotland and I was now exposed to English, albeit with a Scottish accent. One day someone approached me and addressed me in Czech. I was embarrassed, although the language sounded very familiar and I thought that I should understand it, nevertheless I did not know what the person was saying. It seemed that in my effort to learn English, Czech had been totally wiped from my mind. Not until four years later in Canada when we took up residence in the little wartime community of Batawa east of Toronto, did I hear Czech once again.

Batawa was the home of the Bata Shoe company who had also come to Canada with Tom Bata of Czechoslovkia to establish a shoe business in this country. Many of my new friends spoke Czech with each other which sounded familiar but was mostly incomprehensible to me except for bits and pieces.

In high school I learned French and later Latin. The French that was taught was Parisian but not that which was current in La Belle Provence. However, we did read Maria Chapdelaine, a novel set in the Lac St. Jean area of the province.

As for Latin, it is basic to many of the modern romance languages, especially Italian. Once upon a time it was the official language of the Roman Empire, the language of Virgil and Cicero. When it disappeared from common usage it continued to be, until this day, the language of the Roman church.

At university I studied the Greek of Homer, Aeschylus, of Plato and Aristotle, but also the New Testament of the Bible. although much of it was written in a colloquial form known as koine. It also familiarized me with the Cyrillic alphabet which allowed me to read the street names in Moscow and prevented me from getting lost.

As well I was also exposed to Hebrew and managed to be able to read some of the Torah and Psalms particularly because I was already familiar with them in English.

Jesus did not speak Hebrew. The language in his home and community was Aramaic, a sort of amalgam of Hebrew, Arabic and other semitic languages.

However, I have retained German, my mother tongue. My cousin, a German lawyer, maintains that my German is better than it ever was and that this is a sign of old age. I studied German literature at university and did a year of postgraduate studies in German which certainly helped in maturing my mother tongue.

But all this is ancient history. What amazes me is the occurrence of Czech phrases and words, seemingly out of the blue, having been stored somewhere in my subconscious all these years. As a child I had learned simple songs such as : ”Jade, jade, poštovsky pan,” about the arrival of the mailman, or “Ja mam konĕ,” about owning a pony, not very sophisticated, you will agree.

All this leads me to assert the importance of learning another language, be that becoming bilingual in Canada or comfortable as a tourist in Latin America and elsewhere.

Language is more than words. It is a culture, a way of life. As the world gets smaller and our neighbourhood contracts, we need to appreciate those neighbours and their modus vivendi. However many of us are content to rely on English, the universal language, spoken and understood the world over. It is thus easy to become linguistically lazy.

I realize that I shall never become fluent in Czech or any other language for that matter, and there are languages such as Spanish or Chinese that are more practical, but I must admit that upon hearing Czech, either sung or recited, a chill runs down my spine and I sense an affinity and love for my first second language.

My strong advice to all who have not yet reached the age of dotage is to attempt to learn to read, if not to speak fluently, another tongue. Being able to converse and to read in German has given me a great sense of satisfaction. I practice it at every opportunity.

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