translating spoken language

G20 Interpreteres

Being a United Nations interpreter has always struck me as a glamorous and relatively easy job for someone who knows two languages fluently. Then I read a short and fascinating article in this week’s New York Times Magazine that has me rethinking my assumptions. It actually sounds quite mind-boggling.

The interpreter quoted in the piece is the same one who took the reins from Gaddafi’s personal interpreter after he had a meltdown trying to translate Gaddafi’s hour-plus-long oration.

[Photo: Downing Street]

Si se puede: Jan Fertig edition

Aba in the army

For the second installation of Si Se Puede, in which I interview later-in-life-language-learners about how they got over the proficiency hump, I talked to my dad. Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, he moved to Israel when he was nineteen and to the United States when he was 28. He arrived in both places speaking no more than a few words of the respective country’s language, and he managed to learn both Hebrew and English remarkably well despite his claim that he can no longer speak any language – even his native tongue – fluently. Hoping the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to language acquisition, I attempted to pick his brain about how to do it:

How much Hebrew did you know when you moved to Israel?

As kids we had a little book, it was for children, it had all the two-Hebrew-letter words: dag [fish], gag [roof], yad [hand], vav [hook], I still remember all their pictures. That was it.

So when you moved to Israel how did you feel about having to learn another language?

I didn’t have to learn that. Everyone speaks millions of other languages there. I came with one of my brothers and a bunch of Czech and Slovak kids together. We came in ’69… 100 kids went at summertime to work in a kibbutz [communal farm]. They [the Israeli immigration agency] sponsored the trip and they thought that all of us are eager to leave Czechoslovakia, that all of us will stay in Israel, and that was not a very big success. Many went back to Czechoslovakia or to other countries.

So you went, and at what point did you realize you weren’t going back?

When my father called from Vienna and said he left and he’s not going back. [He was on his way to Germany with the rest of the family; they would eventually resettle in Israel.] He said we could go back to Czechoslovakia if we want, but it will not be because of him, because of the parents, because they are not there. And he said that was his excuse to stay in Czechoslovakia when Hitler came, he had older parents and couldn’t take his parents with him. All his friends left to Israel, all kinds of places, and he stayed because of his parents.

So how did you feel when you knew you were staying?

Eh, I didn’t care.

So what was going through your mind when you realized you had to learn another language and another culture?


What do you mean, nothing?

We didn’t care.


I don’t know, why should we care? We were in a group of Czech kids.

At what point did it become difficult?

Who said it became difficult?

How did they assimilate you?

Who said they assimilated us?

Well, what did you do?

We enrolled in the university. Classes were in Hebrew. First year they put us in a mechina academait. That’s like an ulpan [an intensive immersion class]. So we learned Hebrew there. I think it was for a year, I don’t know.

Aba 2

my dad and his eldest brother

So by the end of the year you spoke Hebrew?


So what do you remember from the ulpan?

From the ulpan, one thing I remember. [My mom cuts in here: The teacher you liked.] Yeah, one teacher I fell in love with. Then another teacher, I got into big trouble. Huge trouble. One day she mentioned the word televisia (television) and then she looked at us, the Eastern Europeans, and said, “You know what televisia is?” and I said, “Lo, ma zeh?” [No, what is it?] And the rest of the day she was trying to explain what a televisia is. At the end she figured that I probably knew it all the time. Then I had to avoid her for several weeks.

So when you went into the wide world, was it frustrating that you couldn’t speak Hebrew?

No, everyone speaks Russian or something. [My dad learned Russian for years in school.]

Tell me about some faux pas you made at the beginning because you didn’t know the culture or the language.

My cousin told me that in Israel you have to bargain for everything; you cannot pay the price they ask you for. We understood that to mean everything. So we went to buy eggs, and so the seller said, “Each egg, 10 agorot,” and we said, “We’ll give you five.” He said, “No. For five I have these little eggs,” like D eggs or something. So that was the first experience, they wouldn’t let us bargain for eggs.

Another time, we were making schnitzels so we went to buy breadcrumbs. So we went to the store and we said, “Lechem,” [bread]. So they gave us big bread. So we said, ‘yoter katan’ [smaller]. So they gave us a roll. ‘Od yoter katan,’ [even smaller]. ‘Od yoter katan’… So it took us a while to get breadcrumbs.

When did you realize that you could speak Hebrew?

[Shrugs shoulders]

So when did you stop translating in your head?

I don’t remember.

The thing is with two brothers and a group of those Czechs that stayed there, we all went to the same school more or less, the same everything, and then we all went to Hebrew University. We were all in Jerusalem together so it didn’t really matter if you know the language, don’t know the language. We played bridge with a bunch of Polish guys and Polish and Czech is very close together… so we didn’t need any Hebrew.

Aba 1

hanging with the Czech kids

What about for your classes?

I was studying math; for math you don’t need to understand the language very much. My biggest problem in Israel was when I started computer science for master’s degree because the teacher was American, and he was giving lectures in English. I didn’t understand a word.

So what did you do?

I didn’t finish.

So when you met Ima [my mom, who is from Brooklyn, moved to Israel in her 20’s and also learned Hebrew as a second language], you were able to have full conversations with her in Hebrew?

Well I guess, yes. Whatever conversations we did.

So when Ima brought up the idea of going to America, what was your initial reaction?

We didn’t go permanently, we went to visit for a year or two.

So how did you feel when she brought that up?

Nothing. What? Why not?

But you didn’t speak English.


Weren’t you worried about how you’d find a job?

Uh, no.

Why not?

I didn’t worry about anything! When I was younger I was worry-free.

en route to America with my brother

en route to America with my brother

How did you feel about the prospect of learning English only a few years after you learned Hebrew? And starting over again?

Yeah, it was difficult. I did not think about it. I just did whatever was to be done. I did go to school to learn English in Brooklyn.

So you didn’t start learning English until you came here?

I knew seventeen words in English. One through seven, club, diamond, heart, spade, double, re-double, pass, no trump, I think that’s it.

Also I could read in English because I was reading bridge books but I didn’t have any clue how to pronounce any of these things because I never heard it pronounced. Like “species.” If you look at that it looks like some “spetzies.”

So I learned English by reading bridge books, more or less by context I figured what it means, but then even years after, I was still connecting the written word with the spoken word. You know, that it’s really the same thing, I never knew. So for me English is like two languages – the written language, which I knew from reading bridge books and math books, and then the spoken language. Many times I know the pronunciation of a word because I hear it over and over, and I know the word written, but I realize only now that, “Oh, that’s the same thing.”

So what was your experience learning English versus learning Hebrew?

In the mechina, I think it was a year, so I learned a lot of grammar, vocabulary. In English, I learned much less, it was a month or two, the classes I took. That was a quickie.

How did you learn English beyond the two months?

Just by talking. I went to job interviews and…

How did you feel on job interviews when you had to speak in English?

Yeah, it wasn’t easy. Some guy explained to me how to get dressed for an interview, and what to do and all that.

Aba 6

When did you start feeling comfortable in English?

I don’t know. Never? No, ten, fifteen years maybe.

So I have memories of you when you didn’t feel comfortable in English?

Yeah. I learned English together with you and Ronnie on Sesame Street.

Aba 8

Why did you speak English to us instead of Hebrew when you felt more comfortable in Hebrew?

I didn’t feel comfortable in Hebrew either.

So why didn’t you speak to us in Czech?

Because I already forgot Czech by that time. I’m telling you, I’m a mess, I don’t know any language. It’s all mixed up. When I am tired all the words are coming out in all kinds of languages and people look at me like, what am I talking about, I’m dropping in words from here, from there. When I have to speak in multiple languages at the same time, I get confused which language to use when.

When did you start thinking in English?

I don’t remember any more. Same thing in Hebrew, I remember there was one day when I started dreaming in Hebrew but I don’t know when was it. But I think that is the turning point, when you start dreaming in the other language, that’s it, you are over. But counting, I still count in Czech.

Which is the language you feel most comfortable in now?

Now, English.

Tell me how switching languages twice has changed your personality.

I think it makes you more introvert, because you don’t know how to say it, you don’t say it, you know? So you are more closed to yourself. By the time you start knowing the language and the people and all that, you start over again.

So how did you end up staying in America?

I don’t know. Never decided to go back.

And you’re ok with that even though your whole extended family is in Israel?

I’m ok with, you know, anything.

What’s your advice to me to learn French at such an advanced age?

The only way to learn it is to speak it. Go to France! School won’t do it. You can learn the basics but after that you have to speak.

Thank you to my father for an entertaining conversation that revealed a great truth, applicable far beyond the language learning sphere: things are a whole lot easier when you’re ok with, you know, anything. I need to start putting that wisdom into action.

Si se puede! Jordan Helton edition


‘Si se puede’ is a series (God willing) in which I grill talk to people who have successfully learned a second language in their 20’s, 30’s or beyond, to find out how they did it. I need proof that it’s never too late to learn a foreign language!

First up is my colleague, Jordan Helton, a whip-smart, wry and upbeat journalist from a tiny town in Oklahoma (1,800 people!). After graduating from college in Illinois, she moved to China and spent the next eleven months teaching English to K-12 students in Hangzhou, an hour and a half outside Shanghai.

Why China?

I knew that I wanted to go abroad right after school. I had never been to a foreign country, never even been to Canada. I wanted to work in some international aid field so I thought that would be important. I took three years of Russian in college, but I didn’t really want to go to Russia. So I started looking for ESL teacher jobs. If you have ever looked for a job as an English teacher abroad – it’s so easy to be hired in China. There are hundreds of job openings to teach English to kids.

What was your comfort level with Chinese when you first got there? 

I did not speak a word of Chinese.

How did you feel about that? Were you scared?

I just assumed everything would work out. Learning languages is one of my favorite things to do, just period. It makes my brain hurt in a good way. Learning languages is really difficult for me, but it’s a type of mental exercise that I don’t necessarily get in other parts of my day.

Did you set a goal of how much or how quickly you wanted to learn?

It was such a daunting task when I first got there. I knew that I wanted to speak the language but my first goal was just to be able to feel like I could survive on my own – that I could get to my house, if I got lost I could ask for directions; that I could go to the cafe and order a coffee. I need to count to ten. I need to be able to buy something at the store and understand the amount that he’s telling me to pay. And then once I became comfortable with that it was wanting to be able to have a conversation on a particular topic. And then it was, Christmas is coming up, I want to be able to discuss Christmas with the kids that I teach. So I think that I never had a long-term goal; I broke it up into short goals that I could meet and feel happy and accomplished about.

Christmas in China

So what was your process for learning the language?

As soon as I got there I started looking for a private language teacher. With Chinese you’re not just learning one language; you’re learning two different languages. You’re learning spoken and hearing and you’re also learning how to recognize on sight an image and know what that stands for. And so, when I first got there, learning characters and reading was extremely difficult and I really didn’t get into characters until about three months in. So I started out, I met with my private teacher twice a week for two hours each time. For the first three months we just focused on speaking and listening. For the first half of the lesson, we would go over textbook work, and then the second hour we would try to have a conversation, as much as we could. And then after three months I finished one textbook and I got to level two, and that was all in characters. I tried to learn ten new characters a week. I was living with someone at the time who was also learning Mandarin with the same teacher, so we would study together for a half hour every day.

And I had a lot of Chinese friends. My Chinese teacher was only a year older than I was and we’d often hang out and try to speak Mandarin as much as possible. I was really good friends with the teaching assistants at our school who were Chinese students studying English, so I spoke Chinese with them as much as possible, too.

Jordan & friends

Did you have an “a-ha moment” when you realized you had gotten over the hump and could speak the language?

I don’t know if this was a turning point but it was definitely something I took a lot of pride in personally because it was the first time I really had a long conversation about a complex topic that was also a joking interaction where I understand the humor. I was taking a cab to the train station and just having this amazing conversation with the cab driver. The conversation turned to politics and he was like, “What do you think of Obama?” We were having this back and forth, and then the cab driver was like, “Oh, I hate Obama. He’s not a good president. A good president, that’s Richard Nixon.” And I was trying to explain to him, “In the U.S., he doesn’t have the greatest reputation, actually.” That was probably five months in. Whereas five months before I couldn’t even say hello. But it was just being immersed in the culture and taking the time to study every day, having to use the language every day. It wasn’t a choice for me; I had to use it.


[That’s Jordan in the blue coat, above.]

How was learning Chinese versus learning Russian?

Russian was the sort of language class that you had every day for an hour, five days a week. I took that for three years, with an hour of homework every night, trying to watch Russian language movies, having little tea times that our teachers set up to speak. But even after three years I felt that my proficiency then was still not as high as one year living in China hearing it every day and being forced to speak it every day. It’s hard to overstate how big of a difference being immersed in both the language and the culture makes versus a sterile academic environment.

Just for fun… what was the biggest language faux pas you made? 

I would have the perfect example in Russian. Just based on where you put the accent in a word, like “ya pishu” means “I write.” “Ya pishu” means “I piss.” I’ve done that before. In China, nothing comes to mind. My Mandarin, horrible though I know it was, was always received with the most patience and just like, gleefulness, of the person, knowing that a foreigner was trying to learn. So I think that if I ever did make a big faux pas, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. Everyone who I interacted with was happy to listen to me just brutalize their language.

Magic Bell at Pagoda in Xi'an

Now that you’re back in the States, how do you maintain the proficiency you’ve achieved?

Here in the U.S. I feel like I have to push myself to find those opportunities to keep working. A friend recommended Conversation Exchange, a website to find language exchange partners. It’s like online dating but for language learners. So I used to meet every Sunday with a language exchange partner. I actually had two, secretly – but I never told the other one that I had another person I was speaking Chinese with because I felt like I was cheating on them. You know in those sitcoms when people schedule a date right after a date and everything goes wrong and in the end it’s such a stressful experience? That’s how it was with me and my language partners. I tried really hard so that they never met each other. So I’d meet one at Union Square and then I’d travel up to Bryant Park to meet the other one. Four hours every Sunday.

Do you have any words of wisdom for other people trying to learn another language? 

I think being passionate about the language that you choose is extremely important, otherwise you’ll just float away. Know why you’re learning the language before you start, to keep you committed.

Thanks, Jordan, for indulging me in this little exercise! Inspiring evidence that even the hardest of languages can be conquered when you are a fearless badass and put in the time and effort.