Languages

Without having applied for a formal deferment, I turned back up at the Sydney University enrolment office the next year and in typical laid-back Aussie style, they happily re-enrolled me in my Arts Degree.  This time around, I made a point of choosing subjects not on the basis of what others thought would be a good idea career-wise, but on what I thought I would enjoy doing – ie. Languages – specifically, German, French, Spanish, Indonesian and Malaysian Studies, and Japanese.

I dropped Japanese within the first couple of weeks, when I realised that it was dominated by Chinese students who had the upper hand in learning the written form through their knowledge of Chinese writing, which is identical to Japanese Kanji (while I can speak Chinese, I can neither read or write it) – I didn’t care to play catch up for the duration of the course.

Unlike most of the students, I didn’t have romantic notions about the French Language or culture. I had picked it in part thanks to a comment by one of my brothers-in-law, who had attempted to learn it and failed, and subsequently declared that the Asian tongue wasn’t cut out to pronounce French words – so I had to prove him wrong.

Spanish was offered for the first time at Sydney University the year I took it up; it was conducted by a passionate but hard-core left-wing teacher who couldn’t shut up about the heroisms of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.  Come final oral assessment time,  I came well-prepared with talking points based on the topics we could potentially cover in our conversation exam, and learned the vocabulary we’d been taught.

At the end of the test, the examiner was extremely impressed.  On the way out, she asked me something in Spanish.  I had no idea what she was talking about – she was using words I hadn’t come across.  She repeated herself a number of times, to no avail.  I finally figured out that she was asking if I had grown up speaking Spanish, since I’d sounded so convincing – but my embarrassing inability to understand her question kind of killed her theory.  I was grateful the exam was already over when she asked me, or I would have been penalized for poor comprehension.

Indonesian and Malaysian Studies was really just Indonesian studies – taught by wonderful Indonesian lecturers in a department headed by a tyrannical Dutchman.   Proper Indonesian sounds like broken Malay and vice versa (the languages are about 80% similar) – but against Aussies who were doing the course largely because they had been or wanted to visit Bali, it was essentially a slam-dunk for me.

German was my favourite subject – it is a logical and phonetic language, and made a lot more sense to me than some of the others.  Some of the best and most eccentric lecturers I had were from the German department, including Brian Taylor and John Fletcher.  The latter referred to me as ‘Die kleine Jaclyn’ – ie. little Jaclyn.  He looked somewhat like Hagrid, the character from Harry Potter, and always smoked a pipe and wore the same clothes to work every day – brown shorts, high socks and an old, dark-blue polo shirt.   On the last day of lectures for the year, all the guys in our class plotted to turn up one by one dressed exactly like him.   It didn’t register with him until the sixth or seven guy walked in, greeting him casually on the way, at which stage he pretended to write their names down to penalize them in their assessments – it was hilarious.

He once recounted a story of backpacking all over Europe on a shoestring, and told of how he was so poor that travelling on trains, he would finish off the soft drinks left behind by alighting passengers.  One time, he was sitting next to a guy who got up and walked off when the train stopped at a station, leaving behind a nearly-full bottle of Coke.  Mr. Fletcher gratefully finished off the rest of the drink.  It turned out the guy had gotten up to use the restroom, so it was an awkward moment when he returned to find his Coke bottle now empty.  Mr. Fletcher died of throat cancer a couple of years after he taught me.

In my year off, I had done waitressing work, and had saved up enough so I didn’t have to work my first year – and it paid off handsomely through my grades.  Having proved all my critics wrong, including the course advisor who had tried to dissuade me from trying to tackle so many foreign languages from scratch at the same time, I then took it easy academically the next two years, working 3 jobs concurrently to support myself throughout.

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