In Which I Speak All the Languages

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Monday, November 26, 2012
Do you speak more than one language?  How did you learn the additional languages?

When I was a teenager I hitch hiked to Italy and Spain. I was a typical shy kid – I found the challenge of foreign language totally intimidating and I only remember having one conversation on either of those trips, and that was while my friend was asleep, talking french with an Italian. We were both speaking in a second language so both spoke very slowly and simply. I enjoyed it a lot, but it didn’t really encourage me – I thought that real language acquisition would be too difficult ever to manage properly.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago. A friend suggested we go to Spain for a holiday. She could speak some spanish but was rather shy. I crowdsourced on Facebook, and came up with a fail-safe lexicon;

bano (bathroom).

I figured that if I remembered that one word I could happily mime everything else. This resulted in me doing a lot of the ‘talking’. My shyness long gone, I felt that if I didn’t have to mime going to the toilet, then what was to worry about? I enjoyed my ‘conversations’ and felt rather proud of myself. I did pick up jamón because after pointing at enough breakfasts I liked the look of it seemed that saying ‘ham’ was enough to get you the good local grub.

Like everyone in the UK I believe I have some apprehension of american english. We get enough US telly, americans visit here, what’s not to know? Imagine my shock when I first arrived at New York’s airport. I got my passport out and stood in line. When it was my turn the immigration guy said “alakyahatt”. Well, I was quite intimidated – a man in uniform saying something unintelligible to me at immigration, this couldn’t be good news, could it?

This was when I discovered I had an inner Julie Andrews. I said “I beg your pardon?”

“alakyahatt”

(speaking louder and slower – this is what brits do to foreigners) “I’m terribly sorry? Could you repeat that?” (becoming increasingly panicky)

i’m terribly sorry?

This went on for what must have been seconds but I experienced it somewhat differently.

“Oh! You like my HAT! Thank you!”

Well, that was me, as you lot say “schooled”.

Since then I have come to realize that not only does one not know american dialect just from watching TV and films, but also there are key linguistic differences which must be adhered to if you want to communicate. Unless you want to resort to mime.

***

A few years ago I went to Berlin to have an operation. I went on my own, and I relied entirely on german learned over one year, I think it was, at school. Given the fact that I had perfected the art of staring out of the window and imagining survival strategies in the event of an apocalypse. This was inspired by and helped along by BBC’s Survivors. The 70’s original was remade recently so any mini-me people would be well catered for even if there weren’t a glut of such programming. We now know not only what to do and what not to do in the event of a pandemic, but also what to do if everyone gets all undead on us. Excellent.

As an added bonus I know someone in the modern version, so I can say “Look at friend! Isn’t s/he clever!” as well as gleaning survival tips.

Anyway, back to the german. What I have learned from my interest in the english language is that while english is made up of hundreds of languages the vast bulk of it comes from german and french. This is from when toffs spoke french and peasants spoke german. Hence bœuf (on the table, you see) becomes BEEF, while cow, in the field is kuh. What happened, therefore, was that I could speak a fair amount of “german” but was left stranded when I needed a word I didn’t know but which in english is french in origin.

I enjoyed butchering german, and when the taxi driver dropped me off at the airport I said Auf Wiedersehen. Germans seem to like to pretend they don’t know any english, but they watch a lot of the same telly as we do, though most of it is dubbed, but pop songs aren’t.

He replied “So long!”

***

I hadn’t been to France since hitching through as a teenager when my brother and I went with my dad on a trip to see the relics and graves at the Somme. My dad wasn’t being a history buff, he believed he might see the grave of his uncle who had been killed in WW1. This was never going to happen, since the kind of war that that was ensured that everyone and everything got mashed in together. Indeed, two raised areas of ground were known at the time as “Sausage and Mash” and not because that’s where you’d get a hearty meal.

Anyway, talking of hearty meals, we may have eaten the worst meal in France that night, so by the time we were let loose in a small town for lunch my brother and I were grimly determined to eat something nice. The tour guide opted for a liquid lunch, and it seemed everyone else was joining them. We had a look round and there was nothing open – it was a sunday. We spotted, however, an hotel, which seemed to be starting to seat people. While the french would be spending the afternoon eating we had less than an hour. This required advanced french – in short, this required begging.

Happily, french is the one language I can speak in sentences in, and can hooch together make-like phrases well enough to be understood. Considering children in the UK started learning french in primary school, you’d think this would be perfectly a perfectly reasonable thing, but let me tell you, as much as the french don’t want to learn english, we resist learning french, and I was speaking like a HERO.

I looked at the menu and chose what I wanted and my brother and dad agreed to have the same. I asked the waitress if we could have it within an hour and she was totally scandalized and said “Non”. She conceded that we could have the main course but nothing else. I agreed. Then something magical happend – between her and the chef some quick work was turned around and she excitedly announced that we had time for starters before our main. Wonderful! Heaped with gratitude she dashed off and brought us starters. As soon as we’d finished those the mains arrived, and towards the end of the meal, she told us that we would have time for dessert as well.

Our feast was only marred by one thing. Since I do not cook rabbit I do rather like to have it if it’s on a menu. Our mains comprised of rabbit in prune sauce. My dad asked what we were eating and I told him. He balefully told us that his stepfather had killed his pet rabbit during the war.

I bet it was delicious.

***

And finally! I do not speak any Scanwedgian language, but like the rest of the UK I have lapped up Wallander in swedish with subs, The Killing, in danish, Borgen in swedish and danish, and recently I have enjoyed Lilyhammer in english and norwegian. I’ve also seen many nordic films over the years. Although there are plenty english loan words in use there is also something else going on. I would never have thought that spending my formative years in Scotland would have been of much use to me apart from giving me a rather crisp classless accent, but I was wrong. Dear reader, there are quite a few words and expressions which these languages share with lowland scots. It is very exciting to the ear.

It is also useful to have lowland scots for Scrabble and Words With Friends.