Road Trip Dad - On Language -
Another Guest RTD
Dan Witmer | March 8, 2021
Note: Back in December I shared a guest RTD written by my son Eric (http://www.justlacrosse.com/20archives/blogs/witmer_rtk.htm), who continues to show his “chip off the old block” love for lacrosse and the open road. I hinted at the time that I hoped to someday share additional family stories, as Brian has been known to chronicle his adventures as well.

If you know Brian or if you’ve been reading RTD for a few years, you know that, since his college career closed out in 2012, he’s played, coached, refereed, or helped grow the game in Hawaii, Vail, Denver, Lake Placid, Las Vegas… and Italy… and Australia… and Scotland… and Thailand… and Belgium… and Canada… and Norway… and Israel… and most of all, the Czech Republic, where he’s been living with his Czech fiancée for the past few years.

It’s been almost 18 months since we’ve seen him, but thanks to Zoom, WhatsApp, the internet, and his Spotify podcast “Lost Baggage,” we’ve managed to maintain some sort of contact. He sent this piece to me recently; I hope you’ll enjoy it.

On Language:

My grandfather, Omar ‘Bud’ Witmer, recently notched his 93rd year on Earth. He’s one of seven siblings; a younger brother, Larry, is the family historian and genealogist. The Witmer family lineage dates back to the 1600s, with descendants originally coming to America from Switzerland and Germany. The Witmer family homestead was Lancaster, Pennsylvania – a place I’ve visited sporadically for a few family reunions. A quick Google search of “Witmer Lancaster” will reveal that cousins of mine, however distant, are far more achieved in field hockey than I ever hope(d) of becoming in lacrosse.

My grandfather’s advanced years have occasionally resulted in his asking the same question more than once. Whenever I would see him, or the sporadic calls that I know I should be more frequent with, he would always ask, “Well, what about the language over there? Do you have problems with the language?”

And while you might have grandparents who have repeated questions to you,  I quite honestly love hearing this question, because the answer is never really quite the same. My grandmother is a fraction of grandpa’s size, but her years dedicated to the English language via Scrabble, Jumble games, and more recently Words with Friends has maintained her mind sharp as ever. If being asked a repeated question by Grandpa might have ever seemed discouraging because you didn’t really feel as though the answer would be remembered, I knew that Grandma would get a kick out of the latest update of how I was faring to communicate.

To be honest, sometimes it turns into a game of charades. Occasionally my inability to communiate would lead to a frustrated discussion with a Vietnamese grocer in the Czech Republic that would result to me blurting out some Spanish words I had learned in eighth grade – unsurprisingly, that has still never worked. “Dekjui, amigo, ne habla, sorry.” By comparison, teaching the very basic tenets of lacrosse are quite complex… even when everyone speaks the same language… as adults.

Teaching kids with very little or no English in Israel was a personal favorite. In Italy, I could at least sound out the words when written. All bets were off with Hebrew and I don’t recall being able to count to ten after nine months living there. Using non-verbal communication and just displaying emotion to effectively pass on instruction was nothing more than a puzzle. Instead of figuring out the puzzle for your own satisfaction, you were creatively handing the pieces to a youth for them to figure out. You could give all the hints you wanted via demonstration and softly spoken praise, but they couldn’t rely on verbal cues to help them. It was simply trial and error, with some strange dude hopping around in the background making funny noises.

After three months in Italy, I believe that I could coach in Italian. When I was living with Michele and his girlfriend, Marta, I would say that the conversations were 60/40 Italian, with the emphasis on upping the ratio in favor of the Inglese. I have notebooks stained with tomato sauce and wine transcribing the words I found most important for me to execute my mission, which was to improve the quality of lacrosse within my team. If I shouted something in English, it might just bounce off the intended audience. Shouting that same command in Italian – unconjugated and surely used incorrectly – would hit home every time. Honestly, with a mildly irritating voice and louder-than-most volume, the poorly pronounced and slightly nonsensical Italian might have actually been more effective than a native speaker shouting those same thoughts.

More than a year after my time in Italy, I wound up traveling to Spain and spending time with the lacrosse folks in Barcelona. Excited to see what Spanish still remained from High School, and even more curious to see what bastard hybrid had been bred due to that time in Italy, I stepped off that armpit-scented Flexbus from France with all the confidence that I would be able to habla a little better here.

I remember my friend Bruce Pirie and I questioning, “What the heck is Catalan? Isn’t that the name of a board game?”

In the Czech Republic, my language experience has been a slow game of chess, versus the Rock’em Sock’em robots experience of culture shock in various other parts of the world, throwing words at each other until one party concedes or someone’s head pops off. What I like to call the “lacrosse infrastructure” here has certainly softened the blow, not to mention the constant handholding of Jane, my most wonderful Czechwife.

Pre-Czechwife and/or released into the wild of the Czech Republic, I’ve found this Slavic-based nightmare of a language to be extremely difficult, all the while finding those who speak it exceptionally talented in communicating when the fact that I’m a foreigner becomes painfully apparent. This usually happens in the first two seconds, or from a distance of 100 yards.

Fun facts on a not-so-fun history of the Czechs: it’s very likely that a Czech’s Grandma and Grandpa learned German during the Nazi occupation in World War II. Mom and Dad, meanwhile, learned Russian in school following the invasion of Soviet forces in 1968. Czechs my age were born within months of the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union, and with the Iron Curtain being pulled back seemingly overnight, the Western World was now available, and with it, the English language. Conventional wisdom for me as a child was that if you were ever in trouble, you should seek the assistance of an adult or elder. In the Czech Republic, however, if I’ve got a question and I’m looking for an English answer, I’m asking someone ideally under the age of 40.

My respect is limitless when I do have interactions with foreign older folks who speak English in varying degrees, all of it better than my Czech. When an older gentleman takes great pride in telling me that I’d better go that way, or that I had screwed something up at the grocery store check-out, I am almost ashamed that I clearly haven’t reciprocated his efforts to learn his language in his country – and without the threat of persecution by fascist government secret police.

I have tried, and while it may just be a few words at a time, I would say I’m still actively learning more and more. I don’t recall which of the lacrosse guys it was who ruined my academic pursuit of learning more Czech, but the point was made – “Why would you learn the language that only 11 million people speak, when the whole world speaks the language that you grew up speaking?”

Which is great, until you have to go to the Czech post office, where I strongly believe that it’s required that you speak zero English. It’s great to speak English until you coach kids who just can’t figure out the schematics of the drill you’re trying to get them to do. It’s great until you have to ask your girlfriend’s father for permission to marry his daughter. We’ll have more on that one in the Czechwife Chronicles… but I’m still sweating just thinking about that debacle.

I can coach in Czech. The Czechs call the blend of Czech and English “Czinglish” spelled phonetically. No different than Spanglish, it is an often-times hilarious blend of words and substitutes for the unknown in an effort to communicate. So when it comes time to coach, I don’t believe there are very many sentences that are entirely in one language or the other. Sometimes I know the Czech, but I also know that I can’t conjugate it correctly or don’t know the tense, so I just use an English word that I know they do know. Sometimes I’m speaking to five year olds; sometimes they’re older than I am.

In any case, there’s usually a translator in the group. The role isn’t assigned, and as players get more used to my vocabulary, they all start to share the task. This translator doesn’t necessarily need to know both languages; he just needs to be able to guess what I’m probably trying to say and then say that guess in Czech to the group. The cadence is as follows.

Brian says something, akin to taking directions from a baby speaking Mandarin.

Translator turns head to the side like a German Shepherd puppy… “Ah-hah!”

Translator then speaks in Czech to the group, pointing to various locations.

The group walks ever-so-slowly to the perceived starting positions of the drill, each player attempting to avoid the front of the line.

Brian makes one or two corrections, or in some cases, what the translator came up with is way better of an idea than what I had in mind, and we just do that.

- Brian Witmer

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That’s it for now. I hope to have another “Upstate Lacrosse Heritage Project” piece next week, so I hope you’ll re-visit this site then. In the meantime, please drive carefully. Stay safe, stay smart, and stay kind.

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

Dan Witmer is the author of three books.  The Best of Road Trip Dad – The Laker Lacrosse Collection  is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland.  … and piles to go before I sleep – The Book of Wit is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore. His third book, The Best of RTD – A Lacrosse Coach’s Handbook, has just been released at Amazon.com. It contains more than 55 weekly Road Trip Dad blogs spanning 2012-2020, featuring Xs and Os, highs and lows, and even some Dos and Don'ts, and plenty of advice for coaches of all levels.