SPQB Traitor's Gate


Traitor's Gate

Tongue-Tied and Hopping

How to confuse Europeans by speaking their own languages

Language Classes
November, 2002

Here are five languages that I speak to a execreable level: Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Irish. I noticed the world has not yet cast a bronze statue of me, staddling the English channel, as a symbol of world amnity, so I reckon I still need practice. Every so often I take a language course at the Alliance Francaise or the Goethe Institut. It's a pragmatic choice.

When the Eurpoean hordes should rush the Channel tunnel, waving sausages and reeking of garlic, I want to be ready. When everyone else is flapping their arms in the air and holding the menus upside down, I want to order something to eat. I want to snort like a wildebeest, laugh like a demented baboon, throw public tantrums Caligula would be ashamed of and know how to apreciate trashy Euro-pop songs with only one lyric. In short, I want to speak foreign.

What you should know before you begin

Alas! Learning to speak foreign isn't all playing baccarat in Monte Carlo, patronising the maitre d'hote and importuning impressionable au-pair girls from Interlaken. There are certain pitfalls along the way.

You have three seconds. When you go into a shop anywhere in the world, the busy staff will give you three seconds to say something intelligible like a normal human being. If you stand there figetting, grinning like a scarecrow and desperately trying to remember the words for cabbage, if you please, my good townsman just like it said in your book (Funtastic French in 30 min! First ed., 1834.) and it was in your head just a minute ago and you can feel that first cold, cold trickle of sweat... by now you've been re-classified from potentially normal to potentially certifiable, or worse than that, English. In desperation you spot the object of your desire and make a sudden lunge towards it, the shopkeeper wonders whether to smack you over the head but you manage to stuff some cash into his hand in time, grunt a little in a meaningless way and back out the door. Congratulations. Your great chance to practice your foreign and you've comunicated no more than a passing amoeba.

Cultural differences. This is meant to be the fun part of studying another language. In general it boils down to either not knowing how to react when someone starts torturing their donkey, or not being able to predict anyone's reaction when you start torturing their langauge.

If, say, you stand in front of a German, and say something wrong, she will look concerned and embarrassed on your part and work to hush up this public disaster before it can be discovered; a Frenchman will laugh in your face, and then invite all his friends over, so that they can laugh at you in their turn; and a Latin American will invite you to a party with his entire family and get upset when you can't eat anymore cake. Either way, it's a strain on the nerves.

Being boring. Life is too short to spend time being dull, but what if you don't know enough interesting things to say Or how? I recently met a girl from Germany for a language exchange, meant to be an hour of German and an hour of English. After a strong start remarking on the weather and asking her how she was today, I literally ran out of words, let alone things to say, in the first 30 minutes. Similarly, while struggling to recount in French an amusing cooking story, I did all right, mentioning many common vegtables by their correct name, till I realised I couldn't possibly do the punchline. It must have been as fascinating as sitting through the recitiation of a menu for tomato soup in a slow, awkward monotone.

Learning stuff

This is the nub. No matter what tricks you try, you still have to learn stuff that's hard. In French class we tell stories, role play, discuss contemporary french politics and the history of fine wine, but if you don't learn the many subtle idioms you won't know when they're talking about you in the pub afterwards.
Vous m'ai fait un coup vache, putain! (Nice tie you have on today.)
Je vous garde un chien de ma chienne! (Thanks. My regards to your good lady wife.)

At the worst, you can wander around asking attractive strangers if you can fondle their lovelies, and if they look miffed, pretend you didn't know what you were saying. Preferably with chocolate sauce.

In German class, we learn prepositions and verbs and spend a lot of time staring into space hoping someone uses one we know. Fat chance. In the German language, they have the unnerving trick of stealing the most useful verbs, the ones that might let you in on what the hell they're talking about, and hiding them at the end end of the sentence.
I would myself, to my mother, yesterday, mostly, at the bottom of the well, all the chocolate cake --- what? what is it ? what are you doing?--- running finding have wanted to be.

It's as if the verbs themselves, horrified at the butchery my clumsy tongue is about to inflict on the language, have made a desperate attempt to escape, and have only been caught and penned up at the last moment.

Back to that Statue

Learning can be fun! is the kind of slogan bandied around by those who no longer have to endure it. But it has its rewards. At least, next time when you board the wrong train in Germany, departing from the wrong platform in the wrong direction, you can ruefully smile, and think, you could have asked someone for help. If it hadn't been for that unfortunate incident with the cabbage a little earlier...



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