The PCVL at the time, John Papadoupolis (nothisrealname), was teaching us how to learn the language. Americans, as a whole, have a great fear of going to a country where they will not be understood. Our language classes, or at least the language classes taught in public schools (where the vast majority of Americans are educated), are usually taught by teachers who speak English almost the entire time. When American students are tested on their foreign language skills the smallest grammatical mistakes are circled and points are deducted from the overall scores. Americans then grow up with the belief that all languages are like highly complex, nonsensical math problems where the tiniest grammatical flaw can cause the entire structure of a sentence to tumble into ruin. For most Americans, the only choices when it comes to travel are to stick to the U.S. or risk going to a country where even flubbing the smallest verb can cause the populace to shun you and leave you to sit in a Parisian gutter in painful confusion until you are allowed to, blessedly, return to your home country.
Those who do not speak English as a first language know that they don't have the luxury of such neuroticism. If their English is sub-par, so be it. They'll muscle through, speaking and listening to native English speakers until their continued exposure to the lingo allows their brains to automatically start re-phrasing sentences in a way that is more similar to those around them. Also, since English is the international language in the world today and may possibly continue to be so even after the US falls below superpower status in twenty years or so, EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classes do not play games. All lessons are ruthlessly taught in English and students must follow along or die by the wayside. The point is basic communication, not grammatical perfection. The grammar in your speech will come later, like learning the notes of a tune after hearing it repeated for days on end. Only by speaking English- even bad English- constantly and hearing good English constantly can you learn a language.
This was an attitude of which John, a Greek-American man who was born in Los Angeles and spoke Greek as a first language until he started going to school, was very much aware. John was already bi-lingual when he first came to Mongolia and, as is common among those whose brains are already used to accommodating two languages, he picked up Mongolian very quickly. Soon, within two years or so, John was speaking Mongolian like it was his first language (or so every Mongolian told me) so we as Americans were hungry to learn his secret. What did it take for us to magically understand Mongolian so that we could function as well in this country as we could in an English-speaking nation?
Of course, since most white Americans have very little conception of what it is like to be truly bilingual, we were still a little naive about truly learning Mongolian would entail. We sort of assumed that once we absorbed the magic of Learning Mongolian, something akin to English subtitles would automatically pop up in our head whenever someone within hearing distance spoke Mongolian. Conversely, whenever we spoke a language the words coming out of our mouths would make no sense whatsoever to us and instead essentially be a special verbal key that would magically unlock a door or cause an action to take place. To return to the Paris metaphor again, I remember once walking down a street outside the Louvre and noticing that an American couple were trying to ask a stall vender for directions back to the hotel. The man, wearing a baseball cap, a not-even-trying-to-blend-in backpack and cargo shorts said in a loudly abrasive voice: "Oo aye la hotel." Period. No question mark because the man's verbal identity was so far removed from the strange sounds coming out of his mouth that he probably didn't even know that what he was saying was a question. The loud, determined and artificially stilted intonation of his voice showed that, to the American man's anglophonic mind, what he was saying made as much sense as "Abracadabra" or "Open Sesame" or "/editorx/aspx?uid=7564443644"...... something that makes not a damn bit of sense on the face of it but nevertheless catalyzes action through mysterious forces that cannot be comprehended.
But for people who have had experience with bilingualism (or trilingualism or what-have-you) the idea that understanding another language means having convenient subtitles in your first language pop up in your mind whenever somebody speaks in your second language (or third language or what-have-you) is false. "You can't really truly understand Mongolian until you think in Mongolian as well as speak and understand it," John told us in the oddly large yet blessedly cool Darkhan lecture hall that August summer afternoon. We were all holding hand-outs featuring quotes from PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) or RPCVs (Retired Peace Corps Volunteers,... those who had finished their 28 months of service) that discussed adventures in language acquisition. "Those who learn another language gain another soul," quoted one PCV whose name unfortunately I do not remember. At the time most of us were thinking "Yeah, whatev." I mean, seriously, who the hell THINKS in a language other than her own? That's just stupid! We were born speaking English and we were definately going to continue to speak in English even if we became fluent in Mongolian. Let's face it, how else do people live?
What we didn't know at the time is that to be truly bi-lingual we needed to understand that each word in our first language wraps an endless amount of tiny experiences that in our lives have all been associated with the word. With bi-lingualism we have to start using new wrapping paper.... and since each new language is usually associated with a country that is different from our own country each new word encompasses experiences that are slightly different from the experiences we link with words from our own first languages. When we say "tea" in the US, we usually think of a drink that comes in neat little bags and is vaguely leafy and bitter and not as popular as coffee nowadays. When Mongolians think of tea, they think of a hearty, milky, salty brew that warms you up on a cold winter's day as you sit in your ger by the fire. When the Beijing-area Chinese think of tea they think of tiny, thin porcelein cups and flowery, aromatic brews poured with a gracefully-wristed hand. Plus Chinese tea, or at least the Chinese tea that I've imbibed during the tea ceremonies, is a powerful diuretic. I've peed three or four times in one hour during tea ceremonies, and the output always seems to outstrip the input.
The tea example is a very small illustration. Basically, the word "tea" in different languages always means slightly different things. When you are born into a tent in the Gobi, a suburban ranch in Indiana, a walled, tile-roofed dwelling in Beijing or any number of the almost countless different types of lives that humanity lives on this planet then your language will be full of a number of different-layered interpretations. This is where the "lost in translation" difficulties arise.... when words take on so many subtle shades of meaning because they encompass so many subtle forms of experience. This is why the best way to become bi-lingual is to live in the country where your second language originated.
Of course this is not to say that language classes don't have their uses. Nobody learns much if they are dumped into a foreign environment like plump schoolgirls into a marathon without being given a few months to train up a bit first. Language classes given in the country of your birth, however, are no substitute for the real thing. When I was teaching English in Gurvansaikhan in Mongolia I assigned my students mini-essays describing their homelives. One girl, a tiny adolescent of no more than 12 who spoke in an adorably high voice, handed in her essay to my colleague, a Mongolian woman not named Oyunchimeg. Oyunchimeg nodded, gave her a good score and then handed the essay to me for my approval before noting down the girl's score in the grade book. In her essay, I read this extraordinary sentence.
"I have a cock. I like to eat cock."
Even today I can still see her small, neat, cursive writing. The offensive sentence was there, not exactly clear but clear enough that I couldn't really fool myself into thinking that she had meant to write something else and the cursive writing was fooling my eyes into thinking it was gazing upon an obscenity. Could she possibly have meant "cake?" Oh please, oh please, tell me she had actually written "cake."
I looked back at the little girl, who was looking at me expectantly as she waited for the final confirmation of her grade. This girls was very small and slim... she looked far younger than twelve. Her eyes were clear of any other emotion than curious anticipation combined with a childish wish to please me.
"Excuse me, um," I said to her, "Um, what did you write here in your essay?"
"Cock," said the little girl, clear as day. No mistake there. Her pronunciation left no room for error.
"Cock?..." I asked, "Um,... you have a... have a... cock?"
"Yes, I have," said the little girl. I stared, unable to find any way to interpret this. Did she had an older brother or filthy-minded cousin at home who had decided to monkey about with her understanding of English? They did have pornographic VCDs in this Gobi village but they tended to be Russian in origin. Did the Russians use "cock" in their sexual vocabulary? Maybe her brother had gotten his hands on a bunch of English obscenities at the local internet cafe in the provincial capital of Dundgovi.
I continued to stare, not knowing how to handle this situation. Oyunchimeg, seeing that I was at a crossroads but not understanding why, said: "Is something wrong? Is her essay not good?"
The little girl's essay was certainly good enough within the confines of what the students were expected to know in that class. If anything, this little girl was quite brilliant in her English language skills, going above and beyond her extremely poor circumstances. She was the daughter of a poor school cleaner, a woman who seemed (to my admittedly harassed and bias-ed ears) to have the manners of goat, the smile of a horse and an intelligence that would have been of no use to a child who dreamt of even a modest future career. The girl's older sister was an utter lump of a human being, a sullen fifteen-year-old who seemed to possess no talents whatsoever and apparently thought that lengthy silence was a sufficient response when asked a question by a teacher. Only the second child, this small, thin, sweet-voiced, sweet-faced girl, seemed to possess natural talent and the ability to advance into the future. Several months later this same girl went against the relatively more posh schools of the Dundgovi area and won third place in the English Olympics. This was an extraordinary feat for a girl from a poor Gobi village to accomplish... to push aside over 1,000 children from better schools and place in the top three. But I digress.
This little girl apparently had a cock.
"Chickens, y'know?" the girl explained in Mongolian as my confused silence continued to stretch on with no end in sight. "My family owns chickens. Sometimes we cook them in soup."
Chickens! Oh for fuck's sake. Chickens, of course! "Where did you get the word 'cock?'" I asked. The little girl held up a very yellowed, coverless Mongolian-Russian-English dictionary. It was apparently the only dictionary her family could afford. It looked like it had been published fifty years ago.
"Okay, next time you use the word 'chicken,' say 'chicken!'" I said, "Or 'rooster,' ... but never, ever, ever use the word 'cock.' That word was okay a hundred years ago but it is not okay now! Use 'rooster.' Repeat after me: 'rooster.'"
"Rooster," the poor little girl said. I never told her why exactly "cock" was never to be used and she probably assumed that the only sin associated with the word was that it was archaic. Nevertheless I preserved the story for my (native English speaker) friends. When I told my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Dundgovie (who was not named Andrew) about it I remember that he literally laughed until he wept, lying on his back in our mutual friend's Dundgovi apartment, his face red, his eyes crescents of mirth under his glasses and tears running into his ears.
The only time I ever told my "cock" story to a non-native English speaker was when I was dating a man who was not named Bold. Bold was an international business consultant who spoke English and Russian, as well as his native Mongolian, fluently. Bold had gotten his MBA at Columbia University after obtaining a Fulbright scholarship ten years ago. Now, as a Blackberry-armed man of the world who earned close to a million USD a year talking to businessmen in Hong Kong, Beijing and New York, Bold was probably the richest man in Mongolia... or at least in the top ten. We bonded over a shared loathing of Korean social mores and a shared love of earthy comedy. When I told him the "cock" story, Bold couldn't stop laughing. This didn't surprise me at all. Not only did Bold have a taste for low laughs his English was so seamlessly fluent that no subtlety a native English speaker could appreciate would be beyond his understanding. Or so I assumed.
One day while we were both hanging out in his kitchen Bold told me about a recent conversation he had had with an American businessman from Manhatten. "Joe and I went out for drinks and he asks me: 'Hey Bold, are you seeing any girls now?' and I said yeah and he said, 'Who?' and I said 'A Jew girl from Indiana,'" Bold laughed and puffed a bit more. He was a heavy chain-smoker. "Then Joe looks at me for a long time and said, '.... I .... did not expect that from you, Bold.' "
"Really? He said that?" I asked.
"Oh yeah, ... y'know, because American girls almost never date Mongolian guys. He was so surprised! I guess he expected me to be dating a Mongolian girl or something."
I didn't have the heart to tell Bold that Joe's reaction was almost definately due to Bold's use of the word "Jew girl" and not to some innate racial bias against Asian men dating white women. The word "Jew," unlike the words "Christian," "Buddhist," "Muslim," "Hindu," or "agnostic," cannot be used as an adjective as well as a noun. "A Jewish girl from Indiana" is the correct way to describe me. "A Jew girl from Indiana" has tones of anti-Semitism in it and can offend a native English speaker... especially one from Manhatten! Bold, with his analytical approach, had simply assumed that the word "Jew" followed the same rules as the other words describing people who belonged to a specific religion. "He is a Buddhist." "He is a Buddhist man." "She is a Jew." "She is a Jew girl." As a result he had inadvertantly offended a friend and colleague and, with one simple sentence, may have possibly put a kink in any possible future business contracts on which he and Joe might collaborate. Even those who speak many languages fluently can run into walls or prick themselves on unexpected thorns.
And that was something else John Papadoupolis told us on that day in 2005 during our training seminar. To be truly bi-lingual we needed to think in another language as well as speak it. As I navigated my way through learning Mongolian I slowly began to reach that point. I saw how much warmer and cozier things seemed when people offered me tea in Mongolian than when they did so in English. I would coo "Yamar huurhun huuhud ym be!" in my head whenever I saw a cute child because for some reason it felt more correct to call a Mongolian toddler a "huuhed" than a toddler. I would silently scream Mongolian obscenities in my head whenever I was furious with someone and to this day I find it much more emotionally satisfying to yell "DOKH-DAI YANKHAN PITSDA!!!!" than "You fucking, syphilitic whore!!!!" To be truthful, I am not fluent in Mongolian. I am nowhere near that point... but I am conversational in the language and I can speak it better than most foreignors. I am certainly still learning and I have resigned myself to that.... just as any native English speaker knows that he can always improve his own vocabulary in his native language. Even John occasionally picks up new words in Mongolian.... those his new words usually involve terms like "socio-literary dichotomy" and mine involve "final grades." Certainly I have had my share of "Jew girl from Indiana" moments. Once, when I was crammed into a jeep full of people, a lady sat herself on my lap in order to accomodate her children. She apologized for putting weight on my legs even though she was quite slim. "Oh, don't worry," I said, "You're very slender. It's not a bother at all." Unfortunately, I used the word "turenkhai" for "slender." There is a positive Mongolian word for "slender" but "turenkhai" is not it. "Turenkhai" means "emaciated" and is usually used for animals. The woman, upon hearing me call her "turenkhai" to her face, immediately stopped smiling. It was only a year later when I overheard my friend complain about the condition of the sides of cow being sold at the market (the drought was preventing many Gobi cattle herds from putting on weight that summer) that I realized how dreadful my mistake was. At the time, however, I fumbled around in my head and pulled out the only other Mongolian word I knew for "thin": "narikhan." "You are 'narikhan,' I said to my lap occupant and she smiled again. I was an obvious foreignor so she forgave my clearly unintentional verbal fumbling. Also Mongolians generally do not hold grudges in the same way that Americans do.... and for that I am eternally grateful.