Knick-knacks and Kittens

Mama and Otec are in town. They just arrived yesterday. What does this mean? It’s time for another Slovak language immersion…but this time it’s personal. Let me explain.

The first time I met my husband he told me his name is Lotso, L-O-T-S-O, and then offered me the mnemonic device “You know, lotso trouble.” I immediately doubted that spelling and asked him where he was from. Slovakia. Eh? Slovakia. It’s not Slovenia—somehow, most people instantly associate Slovakia with Slovenia when my husband or I mention his country of origin. Oh, you’re from Slovakia? I have a sister-in-law from Slovenia! Really? Where did you say you’re from? Great Britain? No kidding!! I have a brother-in-law from Ghana!! What a coincidence.  Wait, I think I’ve fallen off track. Oh, yes, Laco. How do you really spell your name I asked him. Don’t worry about it, he said. Tell me, I pressed, I’m not an idiot, I assured him. L-A-C-O, he spelled it out. That’s the correct spelling. This was my first Slovak language lesson, it began with the letter ‘c,’ which is pronounced like tah next to sah and together it makes tsah. LOT-SO. Oh-tets (Otec means ‘Dad’).

We met in Egypt. To be precise, we met at a Halloween Party at the US Embassy in Cairo. We were speaking English, Egyptian Arabic, there was a good deal of French, sometimes even Russian…the atmosphere was filled with mosque Arabic, I knocked my head on newspaper Arabic, but SLOVAK? No, not so much. Laco’s English is beautiful and his Egyptian Arabic was hilarious…being a person who picks up languages easily and who has several under his belt, Laco jumps into a new language easily, joyously, and just goes for it. It’s beautiful and exciting to watch him. I’m more reserved, more measured. Although I have an ‘ear’ for language, I’m not nearly as talented as my husband, who grew up exposed to several languages and is married in his fifth language: English. That’s just craziness.

In contrast, I find learning a new language to be incredibly painful—as if I can feel it ripping into my brain, shifting things about, and carving at my very self. Do you remember Maurice? I wrote about him several weeks ago. He talked about language as something that we embody and said that he wasn’t yet ready to embody Japanese. He also said that when you are first learning a new language, you have no self. Oh, but do I know what he means!! It’s humbling, it’s frustrating, and it HURTS!!!

Laco and I had known each other for well over two years by the time we travelled to Slovakia for the first time. We had dated for two years and then sometime after getting married we travelled to visit his family and friends—none of whom, at that time, spoke a word of English (his brother can now communicate in English). We stayed with his parents and younger brother and visited his sister, her family, and several of his old friends and I spent two full weeks feeling completely overwhelmed, somewhat invisible, and far more *dependent* on my husband than was comfortable. He didn’t want to spend his time translating because he was excited to see his family and friends and had a lot to talk about with them! Here’s a typical experience on the trip: “blah blah blahski blah blahski blah blahovich” (and on for ten minutes) “What are you guys talking about?” and Laco would answer, in SLOVAK, “Wait” and they would continue “blahska blahski blah blahveny blah blahkye blah truba blah blah pochkye blah blahski blah” for another half hour until I would elbow my husband impatiently and ask “Will you PLEASE translate?!” He would kindly sum up 40 minutes of conversation with something like, “We are talking about his work” BAH!!!!

Slowly, very slowly, I started to pick up a word here and there. Slowly. Perhaps if Mr. Lotsa trouble translated more often I would have picked up more sooner…it’s hard to say. Between trips I listened closely when Laco talked to his family and friends on Skype and continued to pick up a few words here and there. Finally(it took FOREVER), I decided to get serious. That’s it! I NEED to be able to gossip with my sister-in-law! I want to talk to her about everything!! I want to communicate with my husband’s parents and his friends…I want to read Jaraslav Seifert! I want to WORK in Slovakia. So it was decided that I would travel to Slovakia—alone—and stay with my in-laws for what originally was supposed to be three months…but looks to be turning into six months starting from May. Luckily, before taking that great plunge I am blessed with Slovak houseguests for the next month: Laco’s parents for two weeks followed by (immediately—not one day off) his four friends from college. Yesterday was day one of my immersion.

Since I remembered how stressful and exhausting those first few visits to Slovakia were (on the first visit I would repeatedly escape to my room and HIDE!! My brain was melting!), I tried to think of a strategy to make the immersion more ‘manageable’ (ha ha). Yesterday I got the great idea that I would try to learn five words and two phrases each day (language learning is SO not that controlled). Although I know that immersion cannot be contained it helped me feel less over-run and intimidated because I no longer felt pressured to listen *really hard* whenever anyone was speaking…which, with Laco’s family is CONSTANTLY!

Everyone in Laco’s family is so excited that I have made a serious commitment to learn Slovak and they are all working hard to help me. His Mom brought me Slovak language learning books that his sister tracked down for me (these are NOT easy to find—Slovak is definitely not a popular language to learn–if availability of language learning materials is any indication), a Slovak-English phrasebook, and a popular magazine to ‘read.’ His dad is helping me (ha ha) by teaching me single words and then telling me how to say those words in Russian and Hungarian as well! Today I told him, “No Ruski!! No Hungarian!! Slovenska is enough!”

What does ANY of this have to do with knick-knacks and kittens? Oh! That’s a literal translation of one of the phrases I learned today: tchotchke matchki (spelling??), which is the equivalent of the English phrase “bells and whistles.” So, rather than arm myself with a bunch of language learning accessories that keep me locked in my room and out of the natural, real-time linguistic environment I am simply jumping in and catching whatever I can. At the end of the day, I’ll curl up in bed, write in English, and have chocolate and red wine for dinner (well, at least that’s what I’m doing tonight). Cherveny Vino! Nazdravie!

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About kalisaddhu

"The Method is to Know the Mind." View all posts by kalisaddhu

4 responses to “Knick-knacks and Kittens

  • jana

    it seems like your father-in-law is doing a much better job at second language instruction than my dad, who usually just showers my husband jordan with dirty jokes in slovak and acts offended when jordan completely misses the punchline.
    as an ESL teacher, i strongly support the idea of language immersion to acquire a working knowledge of any language – and i hope it helps you conquer slovak. but just in case you’d like to work on your vocabulary AND spelling (čačky-mačky:) ), let me know. maybe we could exchange a story or two in slovak.

    • kmariej

      Ahoj, Janka!

      Laco is going to crack up when I tell him about your comment. My father-in-law is so sweet but I don’ t know if he’s the best language teacher ever! As far as the dirty jokes go: I think my first 30 words in Slovak would not be permitted in a G-rated movie. Somehow, I knew how to curse long before I knew how to say right and left. Ha!

      I agree with you about the benefits of language immersion. Our plans have changed slightly and rather than me traveling to Slovakia this month for only a few months, we are both moving to Slovakia in July. Yay!

      Are you and Jordan living in Slovakia now?

      maj sa pekne!

      • jana

        nie, kelly, nebývame na slovensku.
        we have just moved to indiana after four years of traveling. we thought of settling down for a bit but we are already itching for a new adventure.
        it’s so exciting that you guys are moving to slovakia! how long are you planning to stay? and more importantly, “kde”?
        before you know it, your command of restricted vocabulary will increase exponentially 🙂
        zatiaľ čau,

      • kmariej


        We are building a house by Lake Damasa, which should be finished by this summer. We plan on staying in Slovakia for at least a year…but probably longer. Let me know if you visit home! You are welcome to come visit us and swim in the lake!



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