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OUR FIRST ENCOUNTERS WITH ENGLISH

Tłumacze: Martyna Szczepaniak-Woźnikowska i Paweł Woźnikowski

INTRO

As long-time language learners, we may forget when and how the whole process of language acquisition started (and it may seem like there is no end to it ?). And yet, there must have been a time when we uttered our first words in the second language, and they didn’t have to be “mum” and “dad”. Are you able to track your language learning process back to the origins and discover how this adventure began? If English is your second language, were your first sentences in the line of “What’s your name?” and “I like pizza”?

Personally, we sometimes look at a word or a phrase and say, “Wow, I remember the first time I used it/heard it in a song/saw it in a book!”.

Join us on our sentimental journey to find out what special words in English were our first ones, symbolically or literally.

MARTYNA

Prologue

Interestingly, English wasn’t my first second language – it was German. We used to have some German classes at kindergarten (which, by the way, is a word that originates from German) but I must admit I hardly remember anything in German from that time. I only have a dim memory of singing a song about bunnies and wolves. ??

First Steps

I think I first became aware of the existence of the English language when I went to school. In the mid-90s in Poland, English was not an obligatory class, but I did attend some free and voluntary extracurricular English lessons as a seven-year-old. And so it went later on – most of my knowledge of English comes from extra classes and my own effort rather than actual school.

Music

Lion with lyrics "ain't no sunshine when she's gone"

The first piece of English input that reached my synapses was song lyrics. As a child, I picked words from the songs I heard on the radio – and I was very curious what they meant. I wasn’t satisfied with listening to the melody; I wanted to know what the sequence of sounds uttered by the singer meant. I tend to approach world the same way still: whenever I see or hear a foreign language word I don’t know, I simply need to find out what it means, right away.

This is how I encountered my first English words: “wanna”, “gonna”, and “gimme”. They were necessary ingredients of every hit song released in the late 1990s. I was yet to discover that those were actually contractions of “going to”, “want to”, and “give me”. I also frequently picked up “ain’t” but at that time, I had no idea what it could mean.

What’s more, I learned important life lessons from the music of the turn of the millennium. Well, I learned that I’m not that innocent because you drive me crazy, and besides I was born to make you happy and I did it again, but luckily now I’m stronger than yesterday.

When it comes to music, I used to deconstruct not only song lyrics or titles but also the names of bands and musicians. So, that was how I discovered the meanings of the words “spear”, “spice”, and “sting”. I noticed that U2 sounded just like “you too”, and that one could also claim that nothing compares 2 U. ?

Britney Spears "...baby one more time"

TV

Television was a great learning resource as well – as long as you could hear anything except the Polish voice-over. And so, some phrases got inscribed in my brain forever, obviously in the General American pronunciation: “Come on”, “Oh God”, “Get out”, “What’s up”. English-language films and series were also perfect for learning how to address your beloved in an affectionate manner: “honey”, “darling”, “sweetheart”, “babe”, or “dear”.

Just like with songs, I translated the English film titles for myself. As a result, my personal lexicon burst with entries such as “viper”, “pretty woman”, or “pulp fiction”. I also quickly learned names of animals like “bat” and “spider”, and I knew that lion was the king. Besides, I suspect that most of the kids of my generation learned the meaning of the phrase “big brother” rather early, although perhaps not in the Orwellian sense.

English-speaking films and series provoked some confusion, though. Is the “shurup” that I hear from the screen the same as “shut up”? And how to spell “tawk shaw” correctly? ? I still remember the day when my older friend promised to teach me a very ugly English word, provided that I wouldn’t tell any grownup it was him. The word sounded a bit like “sheet”. ? Only after some years did I learn how to spell it and what it really meant ?

HP

Now, let’s fast-forward a couple of years to talk about a cultural phenomenon that took me directly to my road towards translation.

I read the first Harry Potter book soon after it was published in Poland, that is, around the year 2000. And I was lost forever. What’s more, I was immediately convinced that when I grew up, I wanted to do something connected with English for a living. In 2003, when The Order of Phoenix was published and it turned out that Polish readers had to wait some time for the Polish translation, I figured I lacked patience and I started to simply read it in English. When books number six and seven came out, I just translated them for my friends. And that was priceless for my vocabulary.

I learned a multitude of synonyms for: the ways of speaking (utter, bellow, yell, demand), looking (stare, glare, gaze, gape), smiling and laughing (beam, grin, chuckle, giggle), walking (stride, pace, hobble, stagger), and other sounds (pant, gasp, sigh, sniffle). I learned how to say that a couple is kissing and cuddling (“snogging”) or that someone is studying too hard (“swotting”). What I found particularly valuable was learning interesting details about British culture. To translate the book accurately, I needed to find out what a “sash window” looked like and what kind of dishes “shepherd’s pie” and “treacle tart” were. I had a lot of fun discovering the hidden meanings of character names: it gave me linguistic thrills to discover that “Fudge” was a type of sweet, that “Kreacher” is pronounced like “creature”, and that Ravenclaw is like “raven’s claw” (then again, why is Ravenclaw’s emblem an eagle rather than a raven, for fudge sake?!).

Of course, the internet was an immense linguistic help, too. However, in those days, it wasn’t widely accessible yet. At my home, Wi-Fi appeared only when I was already finishing secondary school. Before that, I had to rely on the kindness of my friends in that respect. While translating, I used paper dictionaries and CD versions of the Oxford and Cambridge Learner’s Dictionaries. ❤

After all that, it was clear to me what I wanted to study at university. I became a happy first-year student of English language and literature. Some years later, when my and Paweł’s powers combined, Translatorion was born!

PAWEŁ

Prologue

I had a similar experience like Martyna and English wasn’t my first second language. It wasn’t even second! As a child I spent a couple of weeks every summer at my grandparents’ in Germany. There, I learned lots and lots of German words, for example I went to Spielplatz to play, while plac zabaw (playground) sounded weird and foreign. My grandparents tried to teach me some German, but they didn’t really force it on me. To some extent, I taught myself basic German with an old-fashioned book Hans und Lotte.

German coursebook for children

My second second language was French. My experience started in the second year of the primary school and lasted till about the fifth year. The classes were extracurricular and we were taught by students from The Foreign Language Teacher Training College. Unfortunately, their teaching practice lasted one year, so every year we were greeted by a new teacher and we started all over with bon jour, salut, comment tu t’appeles, je suis Paul, attendez, depechez vous, allez-allez-allez, donc, alors, vas-y, pfft, etc.

First Steps

I can say that I started learning English fairly late, because it was in my fourth year. The very first words were pretty standard and included daily objects, colours, food, basic plants and animals. I remember we spent hours upon hours to learn present simple and present continuous.

Fantasy

However, the real fun started soon after, as I had been fascinated with The Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien’s universe for a couple of years and I started playing Warhammer Fantasy Battle. This is a tabletop miniature wargame set in a grim medieval fantasy world inhabited by humans, dwarfs, orcs, goblins, various kinds of elves, undead, rat-people, demons of chaos, and other dangerous races and monsters. In the game, you play battles in this world with miniatures from a given faction, e.g. dwarfs, high elves, warriors of chaos, beastmen, vampire counts, and many more. The miniatures were bought in blister packs or boxes and they had to be assembled and painted. The game’s complex rules were found in a thick grimoire and each faction had their own army book.

As I was a great fan of Thorin Oakenshield’s company from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I decided to collect dwarfs and soon after I bought their rulebook. In late 1990s, the hobby was fairly popular in Poland, but not that much that there would be a Polish publisher ready to translate the books. That’s why I had to stick to the English original.

Army book for dwarfs from Warhammer Fantasy Battle

Of course, I didn’t understand much from the army book at first. Apart from the rules to dwarf units and heroes, there were also descriptions and lore. I read it many times and I believed I understood that stylised and slightly archaic English. It was easy to grasp the vocabulary directly related to the game itself, like statistics: weapon skill, ballistic skill, strength, toughness, wounds, attacks, leadership, and save. I learned quickly also various words for weaponry: sword, axe, polearm, pike, maul, hammer, mining pick (yes, dwarf miners used picks to fight!); and armour: helmet, chainmail, plate armour, shield. Dwarfs also had interesting names of units or other elements of their culture: ironbreakers, longbeards, slayers (to be precise: troll slayers, giant slayers, dragon slayers, and demon slayers), organ cannons, gyrocopters, runelords, runesmiths. I remember very well anvil of doom and book of grudges. I asked my mother what doom meant and she replied “destiny”. Unfortunately, she didn’t really know what grudge meant.

Another fantasy multiverse was the collectible card game Magic: the Gathering. Each card has a unique name, picture, rules, and sometimes a flavour text that describes the atmosphere of the game’s world or the story shown in the illustration. Here, I also learned many rule-related words: draw a card, upkeep, prevent damage, discard, library (i.e. deck of cards) graveyard (pile of used cards), remove, permanent (here me and my fellow players had difficulties with the pronunciation just like with the Polish word for stocktakingremanent: was it permament? pernament?), and many, many others. Unfortunately, I wasn’t really that investigative back then to translate each and every card name or flavour text. While it was easy to find out what Lonely Sandbar or Polluted Delta was just on the basis of the pictures, I didn’t really delve into what Upheaval or Pernicious Deed were. An honourable exception was Discombobulate, because it sounded like a fake word. When I returned to the game sometime after finishing my English studies, I discovered how much I was missing: puns and jokes in the flavour text, or really obscure words in the card names. For instance, the card called Browse shown in the photo had a really funny flavour text that fit nicely with the illustration and the rule text: Once great literature – now great litter ?.

Old Magic: the Gathering cards
Some of my first cards

Science-Fiction

It’s not far from fantasy to Sci-Fi. When we had our first PC at home, this brought many games, like Starcraft, a real-time-strategy set in the distant future. Starcraft didn’t have a Polish version, so by sheer context I learned various words for units or from what those units uttered when clicked on. My first achievement and sense of linguistic pride was when I deciphered from hearing one line from a unit called Archon. A friend of mine told me that you could use a cheet(whatever that was back then) to turn your units invulnerable – just press enter and type “pahwerr ohverrwellmink”. I went home, merged an Archon, and I listened carefully what it thundered over its mystic vapours. By trial and error, using my all knowledge of English phonology and spelling, I finally typed POWER OVERWHELMING. I knew what power meant, but overwhelming? I guessed it was something really powerful…

Pop Culture

Unlike Martyna, the voice of singers in songs was just an additional instrument for me. I didn’t really wonder what David Bowie sang and what Suck, baby, suck/Give me your head/Before you start professing/That you’re knocking me dead was supposed to mean. The guitar riff was awesome, so the song was fun. It was only during my university days that I learned what this song was about. Little did I know!

However, a real breakthrough came with… Korean sitcoms. On a TV platform, I found a TV channel called Arirang, which promoted South Korea. There were films, documentaries, e-sport programmes (in 2005!) with English subtitles. There wasn’t much K-pop, as it wasn’t really that popular back then. And there it was, a sitcom discovered by accident: NONSTOP, season three. I found it very funny and the situation context allowed me to understand the English subtitles better with every passing week. The phrase to go overboard was used very often, as every character reacted wildly to something almost in every episode. Apart from NONSTOP, I watched other shows (for instance More than Kimchi on cuisine), but the adventures of a merry group of college students was what I enjoyed most.

Communication

Before I went to university, the final chapter of my English adventure was World of Warcraft. I played on an unofficial server (if you know what I mean ?) with many Swedes, Danes, Dutch, and Finns. There were also Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks. The common tongue on general chat channels was English and using other languages there was punished with jail ?. The game required a lot of cooperation and had commerce (I played a paladin and I didn’t need fancy mage robes, so I could trade them for a shiny war hammer), so I had to use English to communicate. A lot of English. Apart from that, we chatted about everything: other games, films, books… or swear words in our native languages ? Thanks to World of Warcraft, I gained written fluency in communicating in English and this really helped me at university.

LIFE LESSON

That’s right, there’s an important life lesson to be learned from this nostalgic story – and at the same time, a vital piece of advice for future translators. Language is all around, in its many ways and aspects. And it will be best and most effectively saved in your head and heart if it refers to subjects you enjoy. So, simply heighten your senses, prick up your ears, sharpen your eyes – be mindful and attentive, and absorb the language that surrounds you.

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