Sunday, 17 May 2009

Mind Your Language

Fear not – this is not a post about swearing.

Instead it is a little confession about one of my regrets; my lack of fluency in another language.

I speak a very limited amount of German, a little more French and, if it were still spoken, I could get by in Latin. Sadly, for me, I was coached in these languages thirty or so years ago at school and the knowledge has been replaced by other, seemingly more important information over the years – stupid stuff like the lyrics to songs – you know what I mean.

I’ve just returned from a business trip to Zurich, a place I have visited many times before. It’s a wonderful city and the Swiss are one of the friendliest people in Europe, if not the world. In Zurich, the official language is German, although really it is Swiss German, almost a different language. I hadn’t been there for eighteen months, and had visited enough to actually start picking up snippets of German again. In those eighteen months, however, the snippets I had acquired had been replaced by yet more song lyrics.

As I was waiting in the airport to return home to Manchester, I began to reflect on the previous week. I had been working in the office, listening to the guys speaking German and then switching to English in order to accommodate me. A lot of these guys were fairly fluent in a couple of languages and I began to feel inadequate, so much so, that I started to try converse with them in very poor German. They were quite impressed that I had made the attempt but it became apparent very soon after I had uttered the first words that my vocabulary was extremely limited. I soon switched back to my native English. I was filled with disappointment.

It was so different when I was younger. At the age of 21, I left university and had the entire summer before entering into the rat race. I decided to have one last adventure and set off for a four week jaunt around Europe with two friends. At that point, my French and German were both strong enough to make myself understood and . My friends weren’t quite so good though. I nominated myself to do most of the conversing in France and they agreed. I managed to speak to Parisians in their mother tongue and could understand them too. I was filled with a feeling of pride and achievement. Alas, one of my friends, a guy called Chris, decided that he would attempt to speak French as well, a bold gesture in city like Paris if your French is not up to scratch.

Paris is a beautiful city but I have always found Parisians a little stubborn. If you walk up to a Parisian and say “Parlez-vous anglais?”, they tend to stare at you with a look of utter contempt and say “Non!”. You have to make the effort. In their eyes, you are in the capital of France therefore you must speak French. So Chris, not a shy lad, grasped the nettle and attempted to speak French as much and as often as he could. Sadly, his vocabulary then was far worse than mine is now and he frequently confused and shocked Parisians, as well as making them howl with laughter.

For example, as we were leaving Paris to head south on a train, we discovered that each carriage was absolutely full. We walked the length of the train looking for a compartment with three spaces and were just about to give up, when Chris spotted one. He opened the door and saw several old people, who stared at him with disgust (we were travelling light and probably looked a complete mess). Chris, being ever so polite but bold, gestured at the three seats and said:

“Le corridor – il pleut.”

Basically he told them that it was raining in the corridor. Some laughed at him; the rest stared at each other and said “Huh?”

I intervened and asked them if we could sit down. They reluctantly agreed but openly talked about us whilst sniggering at Chris. I understood a fair amount of what they said and they were criticizing our lack of French, even though we had at least tried.

I’ve been to Paris and other places in France on several occasions since then and have always tried to speak the language. As the years have passed, however, my ability to remember the words has diminished and I have had to resort to a pocket dictionary or a phrase book. Happily, in the last ten years my job has been made a lot easier because Mrs PM speaks French almost to fluency. She’s a little rusty these days but she can hold a decent conversation with your average French person. On a recent trip to Bordeaux, she was taking snaps for her photography course, when a woman started talking to her. The conversation was fascinating, mostly because Mrs PM was laughing and making the other woman laugh as well – not because of her poor French but because she was cracking jokes. How I envied her – I still do.

As far as German is concerened as I have said above, I have been to Zurich quite a few times over the past five years made a conscious effort to at least try to speak German outside the work environment. In the past, I have managed to ask for my room key, order food, order beer, buy train tickets and even have attempted to switch to German when talking to other people, switching to English only when I have had to. The more often I have been, the more progress I have made. Sadly, though, lack of practice makes you forget and this last trip was frustrating because I had reverted to having to ask for things in English again.

I still make an effort, whenever I visit a foreign place, even if I don’t know the language. In Moscow, for example, I learned a few choice phrases that helped me out.

“Two beers” – “два пиво “ (pronounced – “dva piva”)

“Thank you” – “Спасибо” (pronounced “spassiba”)

“Hi” – “Привет “ (pronounced “preevyet”)

I was stuck in Moscow in the middle of a harsh winter, with temperatures of minus 20 degrees and managed to find my way around the city, by learning how to pronounce the Russian alphabet. Sadly, speaking the above phrases only helped in a bar, so I ended up drunk.

Sometimes, attempting to speak a foreign language can be embarrassing (as Chris had discovered). In Beijing, I was in a restaurant with Mrs PM eating crispy duck, having had a few beers. Obviously nature had to take its course and I had no idea where the toilet was. In the end I had to ask a waiter. I waited until one of the male waiters walked past and pointed out the word "toilet" in the phrase book. He began to explain in Mandarin but I just stared at him like a lost kitten. He realised that I had no idea what he was saying and beckoned me to follow him. Feeling strangely courageous, mainly due to a little alcohol, I decided to practice the word as we walked. The phrase book had an English pronunciation for the word and I attempted to say it to him. He smiled and said the word properly. I repeated it and got it slightly wrong, so he repeated it again. This continued all the way across the restaurant when I finally pronounced it in an acceptable fashion. Just then, I noticed that a lot of people were staring at me with an ill-concealed look of mirth on their faces. I couldn't work out what was so funny. And then I realised; I had just walked across the restaurant with a Chinese waiter saying the word "toilet" very loudly and very badly and very often to him. He in turn had responded with the word "toilet". They had witnessed two grown men marching across a restaurant shouting "toilet" at each other. No wonder the patrons were laughing. Slightly embarrassed, I smiled at a couple seated next to the lavatory, pointed to the door and said "toilet" in Mandarin. I thought the woman would have a seizure. Her hand covered her mouth and she grunted and snorted, trying to give me the impression that she was choking on her food. The man stifled a laugh but nodded approvingly, simply, I hoped, because I had made an effort.

Ultimately, when we retire Mrs PM and I may want to spend a lot more time in France. If I can find the time beforehand, I will make an attempt to re-learn French to fluency. I may even have a go at improving my German. I don’t think it’s too late to try – I just need to fight another battle against my willpower and fill this particular void. I sense an oncoming war against procrastination.

Thankfully, this year our trips abroad include America and that’s a country where I can speak the language almost fluently. I need to get to grips with words like “faucet”, “sidewalk”, “diaper” and “garbage” to master the language fully.

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