What you said, and what you meant to say

Quite a few years ago, a much-reported incident reflected upon Americans' lack of acquaintance with foreign languages. General Motors had marketed the Chevy Nova in South America without thinking through the ad campaign. In the wake of miserable sales figures, it was finally pointed out that "No va" in Spanish means, literally, "It doesn't go."

I felt a singular connection to this story, because ever since childhood I have been a foreign-language fanatic. When I was 9 years old, I spotted a paperback German-English dictionary in a pharmacy. I begged my mother to buy it for me. She did, and I immediately went home and began to write letters to Mr. Haller (the German TV repairman who lived on our street) - by stringing together words from that dictionary, without regard for tense, syntax, or conjugation. I have no doubt now that the letters must have been largely indecipherable, which is probably why I never received any replies from the otherwise famously reliable Mr. Haller.

The moral of that story is that it takes courage not so much to acquire a foreign tongue, but to go forth and put it to use. Inevitably, one has mishaps, and more often than not they are humorous.

Icelandic has been a linguistic pursuit of mine for years. I have made my share of atrocious errors in the language, but I have a good role model: a former Icelandic prime minister.

Once, when he was at a formal dinner at the American embassy, he was asked, after he had finished his meal, if he would like a second helping. Deliberating over the appropriate English response, he wanted to say what an Icelander would say, to wit: "I am so full I could burst." But he mistranslated the expression and came out with, "I am so happy I could spring."

And so it seemed only just that I, in turn, as an American of nondiplomatic rank, should commit my own faux pas in the very difficult Icelandic language.

One day I was looking for the bus to a small location called Keldur outside Reykjavík. This place name in strict translation means "bog." When I asked the bus driver if he could "take me to Keldur," I misplaced an adjective and instead asked, with earnest intent, "Could you please put me in a bog?"

In typically grave Icelandic fashion, the driver asserted that he could not, and I never reached my destination.

Another time I was driving through Iceland with some friends. After a long time in the car, I wanted to ask if I could get out to "stretch my legs." Once again I fell victim to adjectival mayhem and instead asked, "Can we stop so I can tear myself limb from limb?"

The thing I have learned about foreign language study over the years is that one must persist in spite of embarrassment, uncertainty, and discomfort. If one does not learn to bull one's way through a conversation, one will never learn to speak a language and will be forever relegated to the solitary and joyless task of poking through pocket dictionaries.

Of course, the spontaneous demands of conversation can also lead to the unexpected. During a recent trip to Ukraine to adopt a little boy, I was overjoyed at the judge's decision to approve my petition. When I returned to the orphanage, I was still so emotionally lit that even my primitive Russian was deserting me.

The director of the orphanage hurried over to me, and I greeted her with "Zdrastvuitye" - a Russian version of "hello."

"I am so happy for you!" gushed the director.


"You must be happy, too."


"You are doing a wonderful thing for this little boy."


The thing is, I knew what I wanted to say, but I was hopelessly mired in a language ditch, my head elsewhere, my mental dictionary on hiatus.

Why is it that now, in this moment of calm, the Russian words for "Thank you," "Yes, I am," and "It's nice of you to say that" are as self-evident to me as my dislike of borscht?

I could, of course, tell story upon story, about being on a German train and asking for "champagne" (Sekt) instead of "mustard" (Senf) for my bratwurst; of telling a Russian acquaintance, upon entering her apartment in Moscow, that her home was very "red" (krasnyi) instead of very "beautiful" (krasivyi); and of informing a friend I was visiting on the coast of Spain that I intended to go out to "place" (colocar) shells on the beach instead of "collect" (colectar) them.

Now that an adoptive son from Ukraine is about to make his debut in my home, I am scrambling to acquire a foundation in that language as well. Of course, at the same time he will be developing his English. I wonder what will happen when our linguistic trajectories cross?

I can hardly wait.

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