Sunday, September 20, 2020

The language barrier

By Monte Lazarus

Maybe it’s not strictly the American syndrome, but some of my friends get very peculiar when they’re in a foreign country and do not understand the language. Their normal reaction is, “Oh, I’m not speaking loudly enough”. So they crank up the decibels. “Waiter, I’d appreciate a glass of red wine” becomes, “Hey, gimmee some of that red wine.” It gets worse when the waiter looks utterly baffled. Obviously, we believe the louder we speak English, the clearer we shall become and the better we will be understood. This now seems to be embedded in American folklore, like Washington chopping down the cherry tree (not even close) or Humphrey Bogart saying, “Play it again, Sam” in “Casablanca” (never happened). It’s simply not true. Louder is not clearer.

To be understood in, say, France and thereby become warmly welcomed, it’s essential to learn just a few words and phrases. A very simple “bon jour” will bring delight to most Frenchmen (and women). If you want some red wine and say, “Je suis une verre de vin rouge”, you’ll be happily embraced, even though you just said, “I am a glass of red wine.” Contrary to American folklore, as a general rule, the French are not nasty and rude. I have friends tell me they won’t go to Paris because the French are not nice. When I asked where and how they learned that information the answer invariably is “I’ve never been there, but I have heard it.” The French truly appreciate any attempt to speak their language French that, by the way, is a much more pleasant sounding language than English.

It is true that certain idioms do not withstand translation well: a friend of mine once translated “L’Anglais avec son sang froid” as “The Englishman with his bloody cold” instead of the correct “The cold-blooded Englishman”. But, that’s always a peril in translating idioms, and it provokes sympathy and chuckles, rather than disdain or inattention.

In China (and elsewhere) it’s much the same about noise levels. Our guide, Mr. Prince, gave us his two rules: (1) always be on time since the Chinese are always on time; (2) don’t be loud (“I can hear you”). Furthermore, in China, if you say “ni how” you’ll accomplish the same as “bon jour” in France or “buon giorno” in Italy. Here, there and everywhere, just a small attempt to show some respect and appreciation for people and their language goes a long long way. Even a vocabulary limited to the equivalent of hello, please, thank you, you’re welcome and goodbye is usually enough. In certain countries feel free to add cold beer and ice cream by all means.

There’s an exception to my recommendation. In Scotland, no matter how much we enjoyed the scenery and the wonderful people, it was virtually impossible for us to understand our common language. One of my dearest friends from Edinburgh, and a member of the Murray Clan, always told me that “Americans talk funny.” Sorry, Colin, but it’s the Scots, bless them, who talk funny!

Here’s a bit of advice that’s worth exactly what you are paying for it: when visiting a foreign country take a bit of time just to learn some words and phrases. The longer you stay the more you’ll learn and the more you’ll enjoy your stay.

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