Posts Tagged English

Mind Your Language

I am always happy to see my tax dollars at work printing expensive government brochures in exotic languages such as Tagalog, Vietnamese and Dinka, for people who can’t be bothered to learn the language of their adopted country. I would have thought that, as a matter of common sense or even self-defence, if I emigrated to a country the first thing I would do would be to learn the language, although I did meet an American who had been living in Costa Rica for five years and did not speak a word of Spanish. Personally I would prefer to see those tax dollars spent on English classes for migrants, such as my parents attended many years ago. I notice that none of these documents are presented in German but maybe that’s because the Germans feel they have caused enough trouble over recent years and actually make the effort to learn the language of their new country.

Who can blame the French for being upset that everyone expects them to speak English, even in their own country? Still, French linguistics does not easily lend itself to English pronunciation. Zoos seem to attract film crews and, on this particular occasion, we had a French one wandering about. At one stage of the shoot the director asked us to “put your turkey on the table”. Bemused, the keeper and I looked at each other and shook our heads. In the time honoured technique used by people the world over when the person you are talking to has no idea what you are saying, he repeated his request, only louder. “Put your turkey on the table!”

Exasperated, he finally pointed at the two way radios hanging from our belts, also known as walkie talkies. In French, the talkie obviously became a turkey.

Of course being completely ignorant of a language can have its advantages. Many years ago my wife and I spent over ten hours hiking through the jungle to a research facility situated in the Costa Rican rainforest. The day before we were due to hike out a small supply plane landed on the grass strip. Not being keen to repeat the arduous walk my wife asked about the possibility of being flown out instead. Being horrified by all forms of aerial transport I declined to join her, greatly preferring the walk, which turned out to be only six hours and gave us a wonderful encounter with a family of coatis foraging on the beach.

As the plane was in a rush to leave we hastily repacked, so that my wife took most of the heavy articles with her. Upon landing she boarded a bus bound for San Jose. The bus originated in Panama and had not yet passed its border check. Officials boarded the bus wanting to see everyone’s identification. My wife produced her passport only to be astonished to see a photo of me staring up at her. In our haste we had inadvertently swapped passports.

Speaking no Spanish whatsoever, my wife also feigned a complete lack of understanding regarding the gestures directed at her by the customs official, especially the one about coming back to his private office for further “discussion”. Fortunately the Costa Ricans are reasonably relaxed about such things (after all they have no army) and the customs official, realising today was not going to be his lucky day, eventually grew tired of the exercise and let my wife go. Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck, was obviously smiling on her that day.

To close, I am reminded of the recently retired American couple who decided to embark on a rail journey across North America. Some days into the trip the train pulled into a station. The wife asked her husband to enquire as to their whereabouts. He accosted the station master who replied, “Saskatoon, Saskatchewan”.

Upon returning to the cabin the wife asked expectantly, “Well, where are we?”

To which the husband replied, “I don’t know. They don’t speak English.”

Dr. F. Bunny

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Speaking In Tongues

I have a friend who is a truly prodigious linguist. I have no natural flair for languages, while he picks them up like the morning paper. He has a knack for detecting common threads that run through different languages, similarities in grammar, vocabulary, etc. that seem to make it relatively straightforward for him to gain at least a rudimentary working knowledge of almost any language. Even more importantly, he seems to enjoy it. Years ago I gave him a dictionary that translated Norwegian into Sami (the local language spoken by the indigenous people of northern Norway) and back again. He absolutely loved it even though he could not speak either language at the time. Now he is very likely proficient in both.

Having such a love of languages he is also understandably passionate about the dwindling ones, of which there are many (See UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/atlas-of-languages-in-danger/). Here, unfortunately, our opinions differ. Certainly one of the most difficult things about travel is the fact that there are so many different languages and communication can at times be extremely challenging. Having said that, one of the most exciting and interesting things about travel is the fact that there are so many different languages and communication can at times be extremely challenging. Many of my after dinner stories contained the Florentine waitress doing chicken impersonations over the restaurant menu, or my own choo choo noises in Croatia to help me find the railway station. And how much fun was the restaurant in Costa Rica where we pointed at random items on the menu and marvelled at the fact that each dish seemed to contain some form of seafood? We found out later that it was, in fact, a seafood restaurant.

So, I will admit to a small twinge of disappointment at the thought of a language disappearing forever. But surely language was created to facilitate communication between people? If that language no longer performs that function because far more people speak English than Taushiro (a language spoken in Peru by only one person, which must make conversation exceedingly difficult), then who are we to try and stop its extinction? If the native speakers themselves have no more use for it then why keep it alive for its own sake? I am sure it was a pity when the last gong farmer (someone who dug human faeces out of cesspits for disposal) and pinsetter (someone who set the pins back up in bowling alleys after they had been knocked over) disappeared, but we no longer have need of their particular skills. Even English itself has changed radically over the years, but who wants to go back to “thee”, “thou” and “hast”?

As the world becomes increasingly more homogenised it seems inevitable that the number of actively spoken languages will decline, until we are left with a few, or possibly even just the one language. While that will certainly facilitate trade and commerce it will also make the world just a little duller and greyer. Never again will I be able to buy a Greek phrase book telling me that my “handbags are in the net” or sit in a Thai airplane informing me that there is a “live vest under the seat.”

Dr. F. Bunny

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