It’s hard moving to a new country when you don’t know the language. But after trying and failing to find a ‘Teach yourself Latvian in a week’ course, that’s exactly what I did – armed with my university French, four words of Polish and ‘cheers!’ in about 15 different languages. None of which would come in very handy in Latvia.
My lessons got off to a confusing start. I couldn’t figure out why every time I gave my students an exercise to do, they would look at each other, point at the book and say ‘shit ass?’. It took a while before I realised that the Latvian word for ‘this one’ is ‘šitas’.
My vocabulary has grown little by little over the last 3 years but of course, I still make mistakes. Like when I wanted my friend to meet me in a bar called ‘Ar mani atkal runa kaijas’, which roughly translates as ‘the seagulls are talking to me again’ but I wrote ‘kajas’ instead of ‘kaijas’ which translates as ‘my feet are talking to me again’. How we laughed…
My knowledge of the Latvian language comes from two main sources – Fox Crime subtitles and pilates lessons. So my vocabulary to do with bloody murder and the American criminal justice system is top-notch but unfortunately, not very practical in real life. Although, when I needed a certificate for a summer school position that stated that I didn’t have a criminal record, I was able to explain to the slightly baffled policewoman that I needed a document that said I didn’t have ‘Criminal Minds’. As for the pilates classes, the word ‘pelvis’ doesn’t really crop up in too many conversations.
The Latvian language is a strange one. They have a tendency to sort of stick words together. For example, the Latvian word for tights is ‘zeķbikses’ which translates into English as ‘sock trousers’. Your brother-in-law would be your wife-brother (sievas brālis) or husband-brother (vīra brālis). Your grandmother is the mildly insulting ‘vecāmāte’ which translates as ‘old mother’. Your great-grandmother is your ‘old old mother’ and so on. You would think that this rather literal way of thinking would make the language easier to learn but it doesn’t.
However, it is a comfort to me that my students still make mistakes in English as well. Like the student who told me that he really likes penis. He meant ‘pines’. Or one of my private students who was trying to explain to me what life was like when Latvia was part of the Soviet ‘Onion’.
And so, through my (very professional) tears of laughter, my battle to master the Latvian language continues. I certainly don’t think I’ll ever be fluent – I’d just like to get to the level where I don’t panic and switch to goldfish mode whenever somebody asks me a follow-up question to ‘how are you?’…