OVER the phone, a Slovak friend once told me to meet her at kút, the corner. I assumed she meant the one outside her apartment in Devínska Nová Ves, a far-flung suburb a good half hour from the centre of Bratislava. I was just getting onto the bus when she called to ask where I was. Kút, the café in the Old Town where she was waiting for me, was just a short walk from my office. Rather than feeling like a trpák (half-wit), I took this mistake in stride. Misunderstanding is a way of life for a speaker of a foreign language.
“I don’t speak Slovak well enough to have any misunderstandings,” one Englishman who works at The Slovak Spectator told me. “Even when I could say something in Slovak, I say it in English.” There is wisdom to this school of thought - the more you understand a language, the more you notice the things you are not communicating.
When I first arrived and was at the “prosím si pivo” (“a beer please”) stage of my Slovak education, I stumbled across an interesting shop in the Old Town. For some reason, I was attracted to the place and the young, lovely, appealing women who ran it. Though they could speak no English, we managed to communicate rukami-nohami, by hand and foot, and establish some kind of rapport. Two years later we can carry on a conversation, but somehow I have never been able to get across my true feelings properly, or at least they have not been received the way I hoped.
Ironically, the people who I do not understand are the ones who most frequently compliment (chvália) my Slovak comprehension. People like talking, which means they are willing to believe that you understand them. When I do not want to interrupt my interlocutor with the tired nerozumiem (I do not understand), I smile and nod to make up for my silence, feeding their satisfaction of talking. One friend in particular comes to mind who speaks a mile a minute, so fast that it is hard for me to get a word in with my hobbled speaking speed, and only stops to say “Ale, vieš fakt dobre po slovensky!” - (“You really do understand Slovak!”)
The truth is that even when two people speak the same language, communication is difficult. Sometimes it is easier to pretend you understand (tváriť sa, že rozumiete) because it means less fuss. But when I say I understand when really I do not, it always comes back to haunt me (vždy ma to dobehne). You can make an acquaintance by encouraging smooth communication (hladký rozhovor), but when someone tells you something of their life and you respond with a polite smile and empty eyes you are left right where you started and no closer to friendship.
Foreigners of Slovak descent must certainly feel this pressure. How difficult it must be to return to the country of your ancestors and have trouble communicating with your family. Even those raised abroad by Slovak parents to speak Slovak as well as their new native tongue are thrust into misunderstanding.
One friend in her late 20s moved here from Canada and, though fluent, quickly found that she was still speaking the children’s Slovak her parents had raised her on; she would say spinkať instead of spať - something akin to sleepy-poo instead of sleep, and instead of jesť (eat) she would say papať, for which there is no translation except to scrunch your mouth into a pout, furrow your eyebrows together, and say “eat” in a sing-song voice.
You would think her friends would have said something, but they let her go on speaking baby talk for weeks. It can be a pleasure to misunderstand.
29. Nov 2004 at 0:00 | Eric Smillie