Archive for August, 2011

English spoken here

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

I’ve just come back from a few days in France where it rained a bit and the food was good and the company even better and where I hardly spoke French at all. I used to speak reasonable French but it’s been a while since I’ve needed to use it and heavens, I sometimes have difficulty to remembering words in my own language these days let alone someone else’s. I also used to be able to make a reasonable stab at Dutch but haven’t spoken a word of that in either Holland or anywhere else for years.

It troubles me not to be able to have a go, linguistically but I realized some while ago that not only is English language teaching very good in both in France and Holland, but as people travel more they really can’t be bothered to be delighted at an English person trying to speak their language. Generally people aren’t offended that we aren’t fluent and just want to get the transaction sorted and possibly show-off their language skills.

When I worked in Paris people were much more reluctant to speak English – even quite aggressively so. Cab drivers and waiters on occasion even refused to understand my French – and that was after I’d been there for a while and I knew that if I could order a cardiac pacemaker on the telephone without trouble, “deux cafes s’il vous plait” wasn’t going to be too much of a hurdle. But no. The dreaded blank look and invariable “comment?” always drawled out as “comaaaan? An anaesthetist I worked with never spoke to me in English despite being fluent in the language even when the word I couldn’t understand was “airway” or “defibrillate” or the words I was struggling to find were “going navy blue”.

Of the patients that I remember from that time, one stands out. Madame Jourdan was a fairly elderly lady whose son was a film star famous in the 50s. She exhibited wonderful patience when I got half way through a sentence and then couldn’t finish and had to start again. She would smile and help with a word (all in a Marseille accent) I presumed this was because she spoke no English. One day, passing by the closed curtain I heard her speaking fluent English to an Australian colleague who always believed the French had devised their language specifically to annoy her. I whipped back the curtain.

Me (accusingly): Madame Jourdan, you speak English.”
Her: (smiling) “I learnt it when I was with my son in Hollywood”.
Me: “But, but…that means you’ve been speaking English longer than I have”
Her: “Ah yes, but it is so nice to hear you speak French”.

Well it wasn’t nice, but what was nice was that she realized that if I knew her fluency it would embarrass me and she also knew I really wanted to learn French. I’ve never forgotten her generosity because after all, if you are unwell, you probably have the right not to have to wait for your nurse to remember how to ask if you want to have a sleeping pill.

It’s a given that Brits aren’t good at languages. Not true. It’s just that if you are French or German or Croatian or Russian or Chinese it’s pretty clear what your foreign language must be. And probably that you need to come to Oxford in the summer to learn it if our packed streets are anything to go by. I have a friend who speaks with great fluency English, Finnish, French, Italian, Japanese and Bahasa (Indonesian) It’s just that even with this impressive range, he’s going to need to use English if talking to Mandarin speaker and the Mandarin speaker is going to use English when speaking to a German. And I do think we’re quite tolerant of people mangling the language – foreigners as well as natives.

There’s the problem. We can’t alight on one language and get access to so many other people in the way that non English speakers can by learning ours. Not just Brits and American, Australians, Canadians and Indians whose mother tongue it is, but to everyone really. So, I’m happy to conclude that it’s all the fault of the foreigners for speaking our language too well and not allowing us to have a go.