26 June, 2011


Speak loud and slow: they'll understand

A patronizing editorial in today's Sunday Guardian laments the failure of the Brits to learn to speak foreign. It's a recurrent theme. It's also a frequently deployed weapon in the ongoing immigration thread on CiF of course, where demands for immigrants to learn English are countered with examples of British ex-pats failing to learn the local language, particularly for some reason those who have retired to the Costas.

It's not as easy at we are led to believe.

In the first place there's motivation. English, or subsets of it of varying viability, is the world's primary lingua franca. People all over the world who expect or hope to achieve any kind of international contact are keen to learn it. (Well, apart perhaps from the Spanish-speakers of Latin America, who appear to live in some kind of cultural bubble. And the Frogs, of course.) We native speakers of the de facto world language do not have that incentive.

It's not all bunce, of course. Try listening to foreign news reports on TV or radio, as some local wallah in Aleppo or Bishkek whose English is not as good as they think it is tries to discuss complex political or social issues with the presenter in London. I'd sooner they spoke in Arabic or Kyrgyz (or Russian) through a translator. That way they might be able to express what they wanted to say properly.

But on the whole I'm duly grateful for the fact that I can approach a cab driver in the Hague, offer a token "Goeie Avond!" in greeting and then conduct the remainder of the transaction in a reasonable approximation to English.

In the second place, even if you do set out to do the right thing and learn to speak proper foreign, there can be barriers. In the late 1960s, as part of my degree course, I was sent to a German university for a year to study Germanistik (German language, literature and kultcher) and to attempt to achieve a basic competence in the language.

Perhaps Heidelberg was not a wise choice. It was about 30km from the headquarters of the US army in Germany and the historic town is of course a major tourist destination, particularly at that time for well-heeled Americans on package tours.

(Incidentally, the old canard about the ignorant American tourist, "If it's Thursday this must be Heidelberg" is not a myth. Standing on the balcony of the Schloß admiring the view was a brace of middle-aged Septics. The conversation was, approximately
— Martha, where exactly are we again?
— I'll just check, Henry. [Consults itinerary.] It's Thursday afternoon, so this must be Heidelberg Castle.
May Allah turn me into a pillar of salt if I lie to you.)

Anyway, on hearing my British accent, or more precisely my English native speaker's accent, many Germans, used to the resolutely monolingual Americans, both tourist and military, would switch to whatever English they could muster. And as well as the simply commercially pragmatic, of course, there were the enthusiasts, eager to practise their English skills on a native speaker.

Nor was it simply a matter of day-to-day practicality. One of my fellow students, a German chap with a deeply utilitarian attitude to life who had chosen to study economics and accountancy purely because he saw these subjects as the route to a well-paid career, was expressing genuine puzzlement when he inquired, "Why are you learning German when you already speak English?"

You can't win against that. No, the only answer is, speak loudly and slowly in English. Repeat until understood.

Or, if you really want to extend the gracious hand of cultural patronage, "Dos egg and chips, por favor, garçon. Jaldi, jaldi!"

The situation in Germany is a "local one2. The further East of the Elbe you go, the less English you come accross. Or people trying it on. Leipzig, Dresden, Brandenburg, are best if you want to speak German without the village idiots trying out their school boy English.

Another way of stopping them in their tracks, is to look at them as if they have just asked you to give a lecture on 14 Century Chinese porcelaine, and tell them you only speak German, or Finnish.

This "do not try to speak English" is extremely common in Nordic countries - actually, it really gets their back up when foreigners mutilate their language. They'd be much happier speaking English to you as they frequently speak it better than people in the UK itself.

Sorry, should say "do not try to speak our language"… typo.

Alas, FT, East of the Elbe was a rather trickier destination in 1967-68 than it is today.

I did a few weeks of Swedish before the course was dropped for "resource reasons", but I wouldn't dare attempting to try it on yer actual Swede. I do make an effort to get place names and other proper nouns right, like the final vowel in Tromsø or Malmö.

Sometimes their facility with English while having their own effectively private language can be irritating. I recall being at an international meeting where the Danish delegation could safely break off to hold private conversations, exchanging srings of glottal stops with each in earshot of everyone else.

"... srings of glottal stops with each ..."

Or even "... strings of glottal stops with each other ...".

Mind you "srings" sounds quite plausible as a particularly recondite linguistic technical term.

I am learning to speak Greek, but the only time I went to Greece and actually tried to use it, the Greeks would smile politely and then continue the conversation in English.

The Danes even have their own special phrase they use to tell between Danes and non-Danes - rødgrød med fløde.

Enoch Powell spoke 9 languages! Including lots of peculiar ones. Hats off.

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