Documenting the Slow and Eventual Death of my Beloved Mother Tongue
April 15th, 2010
It’s inevitable, when you live abroad long enough, that the way you speak tends to change. In addition to getting accustomed to speaking like a five-year old in your new language, you must also- as an Language teacher- learn how to speak your own language using grammar and vocabulary at levels that your co-workers and students will understand. And as most students have the grammatical understanding equivalent of 7 year olds-this results in that between the two languages you end up having the linguistic flexibility of a oversized toddler, complete with bad pronunciation (just think of David Sedaris “Me Talk Pretty One Day”, SO true Sally). And as all the textbooks here use British grammar, and people don’t understand a lot of American idioms or vocabulary, I often find myself saying things like “Yes, Aman is a clever pupil, he should go in for football.” or “Why, what lovely trousers you have today Begench!”, without a single trace of irony.
The only real chance for us to speak English with other native speakers occurs when volunteers get together on weekends in the cities, or during conferences in the capital. However, this can be anywhere from once a week, to once a month, or even longer for the more hermitic amongst our ranks. When the latter occurs, and a lot of time has passed without seeing another English Speaking person, what usually results is what one fellow volunteer here diplomatically titled (pardon the vulgarity) “explosive verbal diarrhea”. Even the most private of volunteers might find themselves rattling on and on about the most mundane or personal things, which can range from expressing our deepest darkest fears about the future to a person we haven’t seen in 6 months and who just happens to be sitting in front of us, to launching into a detailed hour-long monologue of the latest gross thing our Turkmen host brother did with a cow head (oblivious to whether or not the story is actually even remotely interesting to anybody besides ourselves). And because of our superior understanding of English, we find ourselves talking at breakneck speeds with the patience of drunken sailors so that a simple sentence might go something like this, and be completed in about 2.5 seconds flat:
Previously, there had been a running competition amongst pcv’s to see which volunteer would crack most under the pressure and say the most outrageous things, which would be published in the volunteer newsletter. After some pretty hilarious results though, this competition gradually petered out, perhaps because it has been realized that each and every one of us have reached our moments of verbal desperation at some point or another during the last year and a half (mine was last summer when after nearly 2 months of not seeing another volunteer, I managed a nearly 30 minute monologue about my deeply violent feelings towards “The Mosquito”. Let it be known that EVERYBODY has his or her breaking point).
Added to the hilarity of us speaking like Ritilin-deprived drunken Sailors, over the last year and a half, most volunteers have all acquired certain vocabulary words from the Turkmen language that have become ingrained into our way of life, and thus do not need any translating in casual conversations amongst each other, but which would baffle anyone who didn’t have at least a general grasp of both languages (much like Spanglish, as it were). A typical conversation between two volunteers might consist of something like this:
“Hey Dave, gowumi?”
“Ehh, boljak. Yesterday my eje decided she wanted to go to our gonshy’s toyy, but my gelneje didn’t want to go because
everybody says he’s like a Narcoman, but we went anyway, and then I got sick cause the chorba had some serious yag in it. But I’m ok now. What’s new with you?”
“Not too much, we’re doing some remont at our school, so my bashlyk wants to close some classes for a month. So my kids don’t have anywhere to meet for clubs.”
“Bummer, can you meet somewhere else?”
“Ehh, bolonok. They only have permission for the school, because there was some problem with the Hakimlik before.”
“Bah!? That’s just samsak.”
“I know man, seriously. Give me a break already!”
Speed this conversation up, and toss in some Russian terminology conjugated with one of the five regional dialects, and you might have a dialogue that even the most hardened linguist would find difficult to crack. I have often thought the army should consider employing ex-volunteers to write military code. The era of Navaho is over my friends-try cracking a partially Russian-Uzbek-Turkmen-English code. THAT will keep you busy for a few days.
It wasn’t until I went to Nepal, where English speakers are a dime a dozen in the cities, due to the proximity to India, and also as a result of the tourism trade, that I realized how pathetic my control of the mother tongue’ has gotten. This occurred when someone asked me what my native language was WHILE I was speaking English to them, thinking that I was a Eastern European on vacation and English was my second language (Kia dear, you will understand that one). And imagine his surprise when I told him I was an ENGLISH teacher. Hah. THAT was a fun conversation.
So, as the months pass here, I continue to fear the slow and eventual death of my Beloved Mother Tongue, and I can only hope that in the time that remains here, it will not completely disintegrate into useless babble. And if that is the case- to be as dramatic as I possibly can- then perhaps I may consider a life in silent religious contemplation, or a career as a professional mime. We’ll see how it goes.