1976 – Monterey, California – My roommate was a huge Marshall Tucker Band fan. He was from Mississippi. His mom was always sending him boxes of ‘Mississippi Mud Cakes’ … a kind of really rich chocolate brownie with nuts and stuff. He didn’t care for them. I was the beneficiary of good music AND some of the best brownies in the world … plus my dorm room looked out over the Monterey Bay.
Back from December 1975 to January 1977, I was a student at the Defense Language Institute, Department of Defense, studying Czech and Slovak. My roomie was a Russian language student. We both arrived about the same time. Was a good year or so living the life out in California. Lots of folks may speak bad about California but there is a reason that so many people love the place once they go out there.
I never ever made it back to California to live. In summer of 1981 I did get the chance to go to Smith College, a school for women in Long Beach. Was a glorious summer. There weren’t any women at the college during summer … so the 6th Army rented its dorms for living space. I could walk to the beach from my dorm. Nice. During the weekdays we would be bused to an Army base where we ‘refreshed’ our foreign language skills using transcendental meditation, or a form thereof, called ‘Super Learning‘. We were the guinea pigs. Great results! Our class had a colonel that sat in and monitored the class. His mission was to report back whether ‘Super Learning’ was of benefit to learning and expanding foreign language knowledge. It was, but my assumption is that his report said otherwise. He was not comfortable with us zoning out in order to zone in.
Perhaps they were not foreign languages to foreigners but they were to me. For example, once upon a time in fourth grade a Canadian family moved into the neighborhood. Their English was understandable … even though they were foreigners. (Or is Canada really just a stealth constellation of northern U.S. states that are too shy to openly …? Oh, never mind).
My first love of foreign languages was French, until I went to France and found out that they all spoke horribly terribly bad French.
Much later in life I studied Latin as I wanted to improve my ability to read Spanish newspapers. It kinda works. The French helps too as I just slur any word that I don’t understand and then it all makes sense.
Anyway, have found the following video of great comfort over the years.
Once I came of age to join the military (17) then I did. Noting my ability and desire to study languages, the Army gave me a test called a DLAB – Defense Language Ability Battery. Battery usually conjures up images of violence and foulmouthedness, however in this instance I had one hour to take a test and answer questions based upon a made-up language. Either you know how language parses or you don’t. (Later I found out that I don’t but somehow still passed the test).
After taking the test and getting the results back I was informed that I had done well enough to study almost any foreign language. English was excluded. I was instructed to make three choices, and I was to get one of those three choices.
My three choices were: Russian, German and French.
Russians were the kingsized bad guys in those days so I figured that there was a career in speaking Russian. Failing to get Russian, I had always wanted to travel to Germany … and since there were lots of American troops in Germany then speaking German would come in handy (and it did, but I had to learn it on my own from some longhaired dictionaries). My third choice was French since I already was capable of mangling the language and since France was near to Germany then pourquoi non?!
Several weeks later the Army sent military orders for me to go Monterey, California to study Czech. I was quick to point out that Czech was not one of my three choices. My study of language was essential training for entry into military intelligence. Quickly I realized that anything can be rationalized without much thought necessary: Czech sounded like Russian and I would be living in Germany, which was near to France, so in essence: learning Czech granted me all three of my wishes at once.
Later in life, after leaving Germany, I did finally study Russian in a proper academic setting. Along the way I self-taught myself Russian using the University of Chicago’s Russian for Czech Speakers handbook — which really is an easy transition in the context of already being a Czech speaker (although Czech listener would be a more appropriate description).
Throughout my travails as a student linguist I ran into many grammar Nazis: Mrs. Williams in French, Pan Benes in Czech, and … there were more.
It was Mrs. Williams and French however that made me feel most at risk of being a total failure in life. And so I dedicate the following video to my memory of Mrs. Williams, my eighth grade French AND science teacher — amazingly I passed French with a B but she flunked me in science and I had to go to summer school, which perhaps it is perverse to say that I enjoyed immensely as I’m a people person and I got to meet lots of new people.
View Grammar Nazi video — embedding of the video is forbidden so you will have to actually click the link. Apologies for the inconvenience. Damned Nazis.