Learning a New Language

Ayla’s English was impeccable. Well, nearly impeccable.

When we first met, someone asked her how old she was.

“Twenty,” she said, without batting an eye.

“Twenty?” someone else questioned.

She flushed and giggled a little, realizing her mistake.  “No, twelve.”

I turned to Amina, our official translator. “Are twelve and twenty similar in Bosnian?” I asked. It would make sense, because they’re pretty similar in English.

“Yes,” she replied.

It reminded me of words that I hesitated to use in Croatia. I had learned over 350 Croatian words using an app before I traveled. Some words, however, I consistently confused.

For instance — zabranjen, which means forbidden, and začinjen, which means spicy.  It would have been kind of funny if I pointed to a food asked “Zabranjen?”

apricots(?) and plums

It turns out that Bosnian food really isn’t terribly spicy, just delicious.  Everything is fresh. The bread was baked fresh for us every day. We had fresh plums, apricots, watermelon. A salad made with fresh tomatoes and cabbage, lightly seasoned with salt, oil, and vinegar was served at several meals (I even got to help make it once.)

They made a most delicious soup called čorba.  The secret ingredient, I learned, was okra. Not fried okra like one would find in the south, but okra that had been cut into little pieces and dried and strung. I’d like to make it here, but I’m not where to find the okra.

Yes, that’s me slicing tomatoes, but Anna, next to me, is eating čorba

Back to Ayla — as I said, her English was excellent. When Amina wasn’t available, I would ask Ajla for help communicating and she was fantastic.

I had brought along a friend’s book to read, a children’s book called Henry and the Chalk Dragon, and finished it on my flight to Dubrovnik. I quickly realized that Ajla had the language skills to read the book — if she was interested. She was.

Ajla and Amina

Some things get lost in translation, though. Mary and I were talking yesterday about the time when Mary was telling a  story she made up with talking and flying animals, Ajla said, “You are a great storyteller  — in the lies.

How could we explain the difference between imagination and lies?

Henry and the Chalk Dragon is a very imaginative book, with chalk creatures coming to life — but it’s also full of truths. I hope Ajla can see them.

She wants to be an artist, and here’s one truth  from Henry that she needs to understand:

You have to be brave to be an artist…. It takes a fearless knight to imagine something and then let it out into the world.

Jennifer Trafton Peterson, Henry and the Chalk Dragon