I was recently asked how many languages I speak. Being able to speak languages is an odd thing: at which point do you actually get to say that you speak a language? So I asked: “Fluently or being able to get by in another country?” The response was a firm “being able to get by”: excellent. I can buy food and drink, navigate airports and major transport infrastructure in most European languages.
A lot of it comes down to confidence; a lot of it comes down to necessity. I was of the firm opinion that I had no Italian at my disposal until I was in dire need of sustenance, and faced with a Venetian hole in the wall pizza place. My partner can speak a lot more Italian than I can, but lacks confidence in it. I quickly asked for what we wanted, and we got it. It later transpired that I did so in Italian.
I have tested this in Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, France, Spain, the Faroe Islands and Germany. And succeeded. I failed in Finland, but I knew fine well that I would: Finnish is a beautifully complex language, which I know to be beyond me. I can, on the other hand, buy a few hot dogs and a handful of drinks in Icelandic, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. And I very much have.
My assertion, however, is that I should not have done so, and that in so doing I have put myself in to a bad situation. The reasoning behind this came to a head on a recent family trip to southern France, to a region where there are relatively few English tourists. I can ask for most things in French: Food, drink, the time. The response is the problem: they assume that I speak more French than I do.
And why wouldn’t they? If someone came up to me and asked me a question in English, even with the trace of an accent I didn’t recognise, I would assume that they were English speakers. I would give them the information they needed in English, and I would wait for an appropriate response. A look of blankness behind the eyes would not make me switch in to French. Not for one second.
And yet, that is the position I was repeatedly putting myself in to. I would ask for two adult and one child ticket to whichever attraction we were about to put ourselves through, and then instructions would follow at speed, and I would nod along sagely, hoping not to look like I was searching for any word which I could cling on to in the hope that I could make sense of what they were telling me.
The prime example of this was when I bought the tickets for a tour of a pair of cave systems in the Dordogne; one of which had some of the most impressive stalactites and stalagmites (mites go up; tites come down: it’s the best way to remember) I have ever seen. The other had some really well preserved cave paintings, showing the lives of people many millennia ago. It was excellent, all.
The problem was that I had not bought the tickets in English, so the tour guide had no opportunity to realise that she had a family of English speakers on the tour. More importantly, she did not realise that she had a family who could happily make it through a restaurant menu in French, but were not capable of following an extensive lecture on French prehistory. And the lecture really was extensive.
What followed was a farce of my partner and I struggling to catch words we understood, nodding along and trying to look like we belonged there, while our talkative child asked loudly if we knew what the lady was saying, because she didn’t. Thankfully the youngest one started crying: it meant that I could step away from the group and hide myself in trying to calm her back to sleep.
If we had asked for the tickets in English it would have been ok. I asked for the tickets for the boat trip we went on in English: that afforded us the opportunity to get a set of headphones, and listen to the recorded commentary in English, while the very helpful guide spewed forth in French. The fact that our tickets told him that we were English meant that he could tell us interesting bits which occasionally came up – like some raptors circling overhead – in our mother tongue. It really worked.
I thought I had a handle on German until I went to buy a sausage in Bern train station. I ended up panicking, and getting a deeply unsatisfactory hot dog in a pretzel, with a chilli-tomato sauce. All I wanted was a proper sausage; my inability to deal with the follow up questions meant that I had to ruin the conversation, trying to pretend I knew what the man was talking about. He tried to take pity on me, switching in to English, but the panic had set well in. I just wanted to run away from him.
Similar stories have accumulated from different journeys across continental Europe, and they are bringing me to a realisation that I should stop trying to speak other languages at all now.
In the past I have loved the caché of the fact that I can get around unaided by reading signs designed for locals to use. I understand the difference between ‘utgang’ and ‘nødutgang’ well enough not to push those barriers for a quick way out. The crashing alarms might wake up the baby for one thing.
Yes, it is helpful to maintain my veneer of insouciant anonymity that I can read signs, understand the items on a menu, and use them to guide my passage through a foreign city. However, apps are fast rendering that skill pretty obsolete now: pull out my phone and it will tell me in English where I am and where I am going. As all the locals have their phones out too, I look a lot less lost than someone holding a map. And looking as lost as someone holding a map was my biggest fear from the outset.
If people in the tourist industry have put in the hard hours to learn English, even stiltingly so, I am going to let them. My ability to speak other languages is limited, and my ability to understand them is cripplingly poor. At least when I am next asked which condiments I want on my Weiner I can tell what the options are: I’ll still probably not know which ones to pick, but I will know what they are.