Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Learning languages in restaurants

I sometimes order moo goo gai pan in Chinese restaurants, but I pick out the mushrooms, which I don't like. Once in a small restaurant I asked my server, actually the owner, if I could have moo goo gai pan without the mushrooms. She gave me an odd look and explained that "moo goo" means mushrooms. The next time I ordered moo goo gai pan there, I told her, "And hold the moo goo." She laughed and served my idea of the perfect Chinese dish, just chicken (gai) and vegetables in a white sauce.

And so I learned a wee bit of Chinese. It occurs to me that most of us, even if we speak but one language, nevertheless pick up words from other languages in restaurants, as well as in kitchens and dining rooms, perhaps more than anywhere else.

Consider some of the Italian words we know: linguini, Stromboli, Parmesan, prima vera and so on. Some of them, like lasagna, macaroni and spaghetti, have become so commonplace that we may even think of them as English words. And, in fact, they now are English words.

Mexican restaurants have taught us numerous Spanish food terms beyond just taco and tortilla. We probably also know a few Greek words, French words, Polish words, German words, Thai words, etc., simply because we enjoy foods from these cultures. The Normans conquered England in 1066, but they never succeeded in forcing the English to speak French. One exception, however, was food terms like beef, pork and mutton, all derived from French words.

All these foreign words we learn in restaurants probably won't do us much good if we should happen to find ourselves in Mexico City, Rome or Berlin and need directions to the nearest restaurant. But if we can find that restaurant on our own, chances are we will be able to find something on the menu we want to eat.

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