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Here we are, on one of the weekends I get to spend together with my 6 year old, Bianca, doing a little bit of shopping. It’s a really cold February Saturday, and the shop is pretty packed. As we’re approaching the cash register, we start to talk on a low voice:
Chinka paah! I whisper.
Checker-aah, checker-aah, she answers, visibly surprised.
Shong-fa, ashta-na, I continue, pointing towards a shelf on my left.
Aah, koronoko, checker-aah, she almost shouts, goes to the shelf, picks up a jar of Nutella and throws it into the basket.
Chinka-paah, I whisper again.
Oshonko-tooh, shongfa, tongko, checker-aah, she smiles at me.
At this point, people around are starting to give us curious looks. Some are leaning slowly towards us, trying to get a grip of what language are we using.
Chinka-choo! I say, when we’re at the counter.
Okonotocho, checker-aah, shongfa-taak? Bianca asks and, without saying more, I just nod my head, agreeing. She gets out of the store, but still in my eyesight, waiting for me to finish paying for the goods. She does that almost every time we go shopping, because she gets easily bored. At this moment, pretty much everybody in the line, the lady at the cash-register and the supervisor are literally staring at us. It’s obviously that we’re strangers, but from what country? And what language are we speaking? And how come we speak two languages so naturally?

In less than 3 minutes I finish shopping and Bianca enters the shop again, to help me with the bags. I thank to the lady at the counter in a perfect Romanian (this is happening in Bucharest, by the way), then I urge Bianca to our next adventure:
Chinka-paah! Ashnava-khataa, arkina-ta-ka-na!
Checker-aah, checker-aah! she acknowledges, jumping around joyfully, to the amazement (and a badly disguised fear, in a few cases) of the audience.

The Beginning

Let’s rewind a few months back. At that time, I started to go to an improvisation show. I already wrote about it and also about the associated social experiment I did with it. Part of this show involved a number in which the actors were forced to talk in “gramelo”. The “gramelo” is an inexistent language, something that actors are literally making up on the spot. Depending on the nature of the play they’re playing, the gramelo gets then translated by other actors.

Let’s say the play on the stage requires the actors to be in a Bollywood like movie, and their lines should “sound like” hindi. They start to improvise something and the language they’re using, while meaning nothing in any conceivable grammar, sounds a lot like hindi. Then other actors are “translating” into the audience language, what they think they’re talking about. It’s incredibly funny and by far one of my favorite things at the improvisation show.

The Setup

So, last weekend I decided to play with Bianca by talking in other languages. I knew I was on fertile ground, because she already had tremendous amounts of fun listening to me talking in various languages (real languages, that is). “Can you do more Japanese, dad?”. “Of course: “Ano tatemono wa furuku nai desu, atarashii nai desu ka”. Which, if you’re wondering, it’s a real Japanese sentence, meaning: “Is that building old or new?”. I also read for her in French, German, or, lately, in Italian. Every time she was laughing for minutes.

So when I asked her to talk in a new language, she picked it up instantly. If I really think about it, I didn’t even have to explain her anything. “Chinka-paah!” I started, then she answered instantly “Checker-aah”. Kids are talking in their own invented languages more often than we’d think.

For the next two days, we talked almost all the time in “gramelo”. When we negotiated the next animated movie, when we prepared the meals, when we got reedy to go to sleep, when we went outside, in the subway, in the shop, pretty much everywhere.

Words were made on the spot, intonation was adjusted and the dialogue was flowing smoothly. Sometimes, it was smoother than our normal language. It was like we had less room for errors. Yeap, I know, you wouldn’t think that.

3 Lessons To Be Remembered

As I grew older I came to much relaxed terms to my own flaws, and one of them is that I have an obsessive compulsive behavior. Sometimes, it manifests by doing things incessantly, until everybody but me is completely annoyed, while sometimes I just look around trying to get a meaning out of pretty much everything. In this case, it was about getting a meaning out of pretty much every occasion we talked in gramelo. Without any further ado, here are my insights out of this:

1. Language Is Agreement

Primarily, language is an act of agreement. It’s a live interaction, made on the spot, in which two people must agree on something. It may be rehearsed, but only to fix the grammar rules and vocabulary, but it cannot exists outside interaction. If two people agree that “chinka-paah” means something, than we have a communication process. If they can’t agree on that, then, no matter how many other people agree on that, the two people involved does not have an interaction.

It may seem simple (because we did it so many times, that we’re taking it for granted) but it’s not. The agreement is fundamental in any communication process. If the two parts involved don’t agree, something strange is starting to happen: they start talking to themselves, while imagining they’re talking to each other. The words are flying between them, but there’s no agreement involved, hence those words are meaningless. So, outside agreement, we do not have communication. Just noise.

2. Context Is More Important Than Meaning

More often than not, while we’re talking in gramelo, we’re using the same word, but in different contexts. As surprisingly as it may seem, we did get along pretty much every time. Sometimes I used “chinka-paah” to point the existence of something to be bought in the store, sometimes I used it just to get her attention in the park and sometimes I used it just to let her know I’m around.

The environment is also fundamental in communication. The meaning of the words, the equivalence they’re keeping inside your head, well, that can be heavily modified by your environment. Which means language is a very versatile tool. Not only it can create interaction between two people, but it can also be used as a context descriptor. As a mirror for what’s outside of you.

3. Learning A Language Is Easier Than You Think

This is a bit far-fetched, but nevertheless, it confirmed something I knew for a long time. Every time I get to talk to somebody (in “normal” language, that is) about what I do, they tend to express deep feelings of amazement: how come you finished a literature college but then became a programmer? And every time I explain that there is no difference between French and PHP, or between Japanese and Objective C. Each of these pairs is a vocabulary over a grammar. If you understand this simple approach, you’ll make it way easier to learn any new language.

And, of course, it will become even easier to just invent one, when you’re bored of any other real ones.

4. Bonus Lesson

In the end, it’s not about learning a new language. It’s not even about understanding and evaluating your context.

It’s all about having fun. Really.

So, “Chinka-paah!” 🙂

Running For My Life - from zero to ultramarathoner

The spooky thing about depression is that it sneaks in. There aren’t really trumpets and loud voices announcing: “Hail, hail, this is depression entering the room, all rise!” Nope. It’s slow, silent, creepy. It doesn’t even look like depression. It starts with small isolation thoughts like: “Maybe I shouldn’t get out today, I just don’t feel like going out”. And then it does the same next day. And then the day after that and so on. And then it starts to whisper louder and louder in your ears: “Why would you go outside, you loser? Didn’t have enough yet? Want more people to make fun of how much of a big, fat loser you are?”

And then you start to breath in guilt and shame, instead of air. Every breathe you take is putting more dark thoughts into your body.

Until you get stuck. You can’t move anymore. At all.

If you want to know how I got out of this space, eventually, check out my latest book on Amazon and Kindle.

Running For My Life -from zero to ultramarathoner

This Post Has 9 Comments
  1. Just a small nitpick regarding the Japanese sentence in this post (all in good spirit, I assure you). “Ano tatemono wa furuku nai desu” means “That building is not old”. “Atarashii nai desu ka” is grammatically incorrect – it should be “Atarashiku nai desu ka”, which would mean “Isn’t it new?”. All in all, if you wanted to say “Is that building old or new?”, that would be “Ano tatemono wa furui desu ka, atarashii desu ka?”. Not that all that changes the message of the post in any way – I just thought I’d let you know.

    Greetings from Japan,

    1. Yeap, you’re right about that sentence, time to review my Japanese notes. On a side note, I find this extremely amusing: you know, when I started this blog, more than 3 years ago, I knew I made it when I started to have English nazi grammars (I’m not a native English speaker, and that was pretty obvious in the beginning). Now I’m getting correction for my Japanese :).

      1. Well there you go – if that doesn’t speak volumes about your progress I don’t know what does! 🙂
        Now just wait until someone else tells you that “shong-fa” is actually a relative clause, so you should have said “shong-fu” instead, but even then the required level of politeness when speaking to a child mandates using “shing” instead of “shong”, so basically the whole sentence sucks 😀

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