Why loan words are awesome

Hey look, I can read one of the words on this menu! From the food court in Futurm.

Hey look, I can read one of the words on this menu! From the food court in Futurm, in Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic.

Loan words and brand names are like tiny, one shot Rosetta stones— the keys to puzzling out a restaurant menu in a foreign language, or getting a cup of coffee when you’re tired. (The two I’m thinking of are tofu and Maggi.) And the first of this memory part starts in a classroom in Michigan, where I taught adults English.

It was a class of older, native Spanish speakers who struggled to get their tongues around unfamiliar English words. In a unit about food, I brought in cooking magazines, my own cookbooks, and as many pictures of food as I could round up— as well as a Spanish-English dictionary. The blanks looks I was getting from them were bothering me, and I decided it was time to bring in more visuals and ease with translation. For an assignment, I asked them to think of their favorite meal from home, and write down the ingredients.

Things were going fine, until I checked on a particular student’s paper, a woman who really wrestled with English, in both speaking and writing. I knew how frustrated she could get about our communication issues. I was trying to decipher what she had written, the ingredients for a fish stew called pepe soup, and not understanding the word she said.

“Maggi,” she repeated.

“Maggi,” I replied. And it clicked, and I drew a little cube and wrote the word “broth” underneath it.  * 

“For soup.”

“Yes!” she said, part happy and part exasperated with me. “For soup.” Before one of my various trips, my aunt had given me a box of Maggi, which is salty, delicious vegetable bouillon— and now it has become habit for me to take stock cubes with me when I travel. 

I wouldn’t eat it every day, of course, or even every week— too full of salt. But comfort foods aren’t designed for every day: they’re designed to appeal to the more primitive part of your brain, the part that evolved when our ancestors had to hunt and scrape by for food, and so we think that those once difficult to find foods, the ones full of salt fat and flavor, are really delicious.

One of my comfort foods— aside from broth and noodles— is inexpensive Chinese food. When I was young, and my parents were going through their divorce, I would spend weekends with my dad— and one of the things we did was go to this small Chinese place on Pelham Drive in Dearborn Heights. Even now, helpings of water chesnuts, bamboo shoots, broccoli and rice, topped with soy sauce, is a go-to takeout food when I’m too tired to cook, or just feeling overwhelmed. (Well, now it’s tamari sauce.)

A pile of tofu, broccoli and rice from the Chinese place in the Tesco near the train station.

A pile of tofu, broccoli and rice from the Chinese place in the Tesco near the train station.

My first week in Hradec Králové and feeling a touch overwhelmed, I went back to one of the few places I knew, a place near-ish to the train station. It was a relief: there were pictures of the food on the menu! But the cashier at the hole-in-the-wall Chinese place in the Tesco clearly didn’t want to deal with me, or my terrible Czech, or my phrase book. So I picked up a pad of paper by the register and wrote my order number on it. And she smiled, and I got my Chinese food.

When I tried the other Chinese place in the mall in Futurm, the menu was even better: pictures and words. And this time, the cashier seemed to understand when I said “tofu.”

More Chinese food, this time from the place in Futurm.

More Chinese food, this time from the place in Futurm.

I thought of my student, when I saw this vending machine— with Maggi soup hiding among the coffees, cappucinos and hot chocolates. She is likely back in her home country now, and still flavoring her soup with the same brand broth cubes that I have used.

Hmm, I don't think that last one is coffee...

Hmm, I don’t think that last one is coffee…

And now, when the cashier at the Chinese takeout place sees me, she smiles and hands me a pen. The last time I went for Chinese take out, I also ordered french fries— having finally mastered the Czech word for french fries, “hranolky.” Saying something in Czech, and pointing at the tray, she hesitated— and then said, “to go?” (This was also the first time I had heard her speak English.) And another layer of comfort was added to my takeout: being understood.

So, we traded a Czech word for an English word. But we’ll figure it out in the end.

*Nope, I can’t spell bouillon without looking it up, and broth is an easier word to remember anyway.


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