Why don’t they speak English?

My failure to conquer another language

Words: Lee Tulloch

My lack of facility with language is something I regret every time I travel to a non-English speaking destination.

It’s not as if I haven’t tried. Six years of High School French and two years living in Paris should have made me a whiz at that language, but I still can do little more than ask for a croissant in a boulangerie or direct a taxi driver. I can mostly understand it, and I can read it quite well, but I never gained the confidence to rattle it off like a native.

I studied Italian for six months when I planned to move to Italy. But, on the way to Rome, I stopped in New York and didn’t go on. I didn’t go Italy for 20 years after that. So my Italian was limited to knowing how to pronounce calzone when I ordered it from the local pizza parlour on Second Avenue.

Then there was the time I covered myself in glory studying Swedish at Melbourne University. Swedish? It was compulsory for me take a Germanic language for my Honours degree in English Language and Literature (the course covers Old Norse, you see) but I hadn’t studied German at school. The other option was Dutch but, despite the Dutch lecturer being inhumanly handsome, I was advised to take Swedish. It was dead easy, everyone said. Not easy for me. I passed, but, then again, no one had ever failed.

When I went to Sweden for the first time earlier this year, the locals just assumed I was Swedish by the way I looked, and they were shocked when I told them I didn’t speak it. In fact, all I can remember from university are the words for ‘I have a glass.’ Useful. Even my compulsive viewing of Scandinavian TV programs like The Bridge and The Killing hasn’t helped much, although I can tell the difference between Swedish and Danish. But so can my husband, who never studied it.

I think it’s a good lesson in humility to travel in a country where you can’t speak the language

I blame it on my HSC French teacher, who will remain nameless. Whenever any of the girls in the class got a verb conjugation wrong, we had to dance a can-can on our desktop. (It was a co-ed school.) The prospect of that was enough to make anyone terrified of grammatical errors and I think the memory is what makes me freeze whenever ever I attempt conversation in French.  I got 49 for French in HSC – bombing out totally in the oral exam – and it’s been a singe on my back ever since.

My daughter was fluent in French when she was six and I wish I had been given that opportunity. But we grow up with no international borders in Australia and there’s no need to communicate in other languages to be understood. So, not only do we lack the facility to pick up languages easily, we are used to making the assumption that everyone will speak English. We’re lucky that it’s the language that China, India and much of the developing world wants to learn, but striking a country, such as Turkey or Japan, where English usage is not common, can leave you befuddled.

I always try to know a few phrases, but sometimes I am just confounded. Turkey did that to me. I don’t know whether I had too much going on in my brain, but I couldn’t get the simplest pronunciation. And I couldn’t remember ‘thank you’ or ‘please’ let alone ‘go slower!’ or similar instructions for kamikaze taxi drivers.

Sometimes you need to use a bit of ingenuity. A few years ago I travelled in rural Romania with a group of writers. Unusually for Eastern Europe, Romanian is a Romance language, with some relationship to Italian. Stumped by its strangeness, we devised our own language, which was sort of Italian with a Russian accent. It was understood surprisingly often.

I think it’s a good lesson in humility to travel in a country where you can’t speak the language and they can’t, or are not interested in, speaking English. In Paris, I was a second-class citizen because I was so inarticulate. Bureaucrats were plainly contemptuous of my stupidity.  I couldn’t even answer the phone at home. Nor could I communicate with my daughter’s schoolteachers.

The perfect punishment for those people intolerant of someone struggling with English would be to ship them off to Paris for a few months. I think we’d hear ‘Why don’t they speak our bloody language?” a lot less often.

Subscribe to comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Protected by WP Anti Spam