Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Der Straßepantomimen

To have another language, asserted Charlemagne smugly, is to possess a second soul. Well bully for you, Charlie Two-Souls. His meaning is graspable, though. I’ve always wanted to be able to speak another language fluently, but preferably without putting any actual time or effort into learning one. It’s too easy to be lazy, the world is now so Anglophonic you really have to go out of your way to speak anything else.

If I could choose one language to speak fluently, it would be French. This is because I’m interested in the way that the French soul is so different to the British one. Dear me, how might world history have unfolded without that miraculous sliver of sea to bulwark Britain from the rest of Europe and allow it to evolve to Greatness in glorious isolation? We can only imagine…and shudder.

The Frogs and the Rosbifs – an epic tale of rivalry, hatred, love, secret envy and two utterly opposed souls. But to speak both tongues fluently, well, it must be like uniting two sides of a brain. As it is, I can get by. Enough to find food, shelter and the nearest metro station. Enough to catch half a glimpse of the French soul; to shrug a gallic merci at the waiter and feel faintly froggish as I stir my café au lait.

I can barely even do that in Spanish or Italian, strictly the essentials plus sign language there. Greek is pretty much just ef haristo or however you write it. (σε ευχαριστώ apparently). Everything else, forget it, they’re not real languages. Except maybe Latin. But how can anyone take Thai seriously, for example? It’s clearly a hoax. I won’t even order Thai food in the original language, there’s always a prik, a bum or a wee in there, waiting to trap you.

I do have a bit of German though – as with French, just enough to perform. Also, I’m very good at accents and mimicry in general. But this combination can get you into terrible trouble, in that locals assume you can speak the lingo much more fluently than you really can.

I remember a particular example in a Berlin hotel. Using my GCSE knowledge and a German phrasebook, I had carefully prepared a fairly long and complex question to ask the concierge. It was something like “What is the best way to get to the main train station from here – is it quicker to get the tram from just over the road or is it better to walk to the U-Bahn. Or if we walk all the way, how long will it take?” So I practised this Germanic spiel on Mrs B, rehearsed it in the lift on the way down to the front desk, uttered a cheery “Guten Morgen” and reeled it out with careful effortlessness in my best Kraut tones.

Well, I hadn’t thought it through, had I? The girl at the desk beamed with delight at my apparent and, for an Englishman, highly unusual fluency in her native tongue, and then launched into an extremely rapid and detailed answer. I was drowning from the off, but instead of owning up, foolish pride meant that I instead opted to perform some Pavement Panto™ to indicate that I was following every word of her answer. This Straßepantomime consisted mostly of nods, raised eyebrows, thoughtful Jas and neutral chuckles. By God she went on, even producing a series of maps from beneath the desk to illustrate the intricately nuanced nature of the question I’d asked her. By the end I was a total wreck, and it was all I could do to cry a feeble danke schoen over my shoulder as I fled the lobby.

Speaking languages is one thing, it’s when the buggers speak 'em back that the problems start. I was going to draw some sort of lesson from all this but I forget what it was now.


malty said...

Well Brit m'boy why need we bother ourselves with this foreign gibberish when English is the modern day Lingua Franca. Used by everyone except the devious back stabbing cheese munching surrender monkeys of course, white devils.
Why even the Dutch wallahs are with us.
I had very little chance to use my German whilst doing business with the Hun, they prefer to bounce their English off us. Visiting the country over the past 10 years, courtesy of junior who speaks it fluently as he works among 'em, I do frequently lapse into the locals lingo albeit with a northern accent.
French however is a nag of a different hue, ever since De Gaulle's "non" I point blank refuse to utter a word of the stuff, this being my revenge. Compendez vous mein Freunde ?
My French teacher, M.Radisson, was from Marseilles and the double of Charles Aznavour, deadly accurate with the blackboard duster he said I "ad leetle eenterest in Franch".
Oh, and he was banging the history teacher.

Catherine said...

'Speaking languages is one thing, it’s when the buggers speak 'em back that the problems start'

So true, so true!

I'm in the process of reviewing ten + Thai language phrase books for a post.

Some are shameful. Others quite wonderful, but useless as phrase books.

And not one has the sentence that goes 'after'.

A decent phrase book would give the native speaker a limited choice to point to.

Now there's a thought...

David said...

I can just about get along in England, assuming that I'm willing to ask people to repeat themselves three or four times and have the usual friendly native bearer by my side.

will said...

The worst thing is learning one language to a pretty good level (as I did with French), then having to learn another (as I did with German) - and then finding that your brain can only store one language at a time!

I was most depressed to discover that I will never be able to impress people with my ability to switch effortlessly between languages. As it turns out I start a sentence in french and about half way through I just inadvertently switch into german

one minute I'm trying to order a croissant, the next i'm goose-stepping towards Poland

Nige said...

With you there David - half the time I haven't the faintest idea what people are saying, or even what language they're speaking - it might be Bulgarian for all I know. I'll hear the till jockey asking for £5.39 and it'll turn out to be 72p or something. Mystifying...

Brit said...

But David has the excuse of being an American, Nige, what's yours?

(There are currently three bloggers in this sphere called simply 'David'? It's most confusing. I wish they'd come up with something more imaginitive. Like 'Dave' for example).

Brit said...

Catherine - have you found the Thai for 'I will not buy this record, it is scratched'?

Or indeed, "one minute I'm trying to order a croissant, the next i'm goose-stepping towards Poland".

That could come in handy.

will said...

top tip: a great way to ensure that you are understood and respected by the locals in Spain, is to simply add an "o" to the end of every english word

ie. oyo waitero, more-o beero overo here-o, pleaso

will said...

nb. This also works in Italy if you replace the "o" with an "a"

Kev said...

I envy your German story Brit. I studied German in school and the only phrase that I and everone else I know who took the course remembers is how best to get to the train station "Wie komme Ich am besten zum Bahnhof". I and several others have long harboured a desire to put this to use but in the brief period I have actually spent in Germany I found the train stations to be perfectly signposted and impossible to miss.

Brit said...

Yeah, that phrase is oddly memorable for some reason Kev. Along with "Ich bin zwolf" (I am 12).

But you'll notice that my lengthy question did actually include a bit of wie komme Ich am besten-ing.

martpol said...

Re. Charlemagne:

I know someone who speaks English, Welsh and two mainland European languages fluently, but he appears not to have a soul at all. Maybe speaking too many of the things is equally detrimental to one's humanity.

malty said...

Pity anyone learning Korean, the have something like 19 alphabets. Visiting Hyundai designers, taken for a night out in Wiesbaden knew one piece of English (no German) "take us to see the women with round eyes"

Well, you would, wouldn't you.
Kev, most German towns and cities are plastered with signs pointing at the stations, virtually every employee working for Deutsche Bahn and REWE speaks English.

Kraut fact No 1...from midnight Friday until midnight Sunday 5 people can travel on the REWE (local too-toos) anywhere in Germany for 39 Euro's, you may have to plan you trip but it is possible for 5 people to say travel from Koln to Berlin one weekend and return the next for approx £38 total, that's a distance of 470 Km.
When we last did the same journey on the ICE the cost for 2 people for the same journey, return was £180 total, travelling overnight.

Anonymous said...

Did that with Italian. i heard two old Italian women speaking in Wop in Bradford M & S and said, delighted: "siete Italiane?" - well, they began speaking back in Italian, FAST. i tried the panto thing but they realised i was following almost nothing of it. This is after spending 3 months in Italy, so i thought i could get by, fool.

Brit said...

I reckon German's actually one of the easier languages to follow, because

1) at least they break the words up with strong, distinct consonants
2) they tend to be sympathetic to the foreigner.

All the latin countries fail on the first count, and the frogs fail dismally on both.

malty said...

Anyone considered learning Geordie ?

Brit said...

Isn't it just a series of Way-ays and acts of violence, Malty?

malty said...

My favourite is "hadaway and shite" Roughly translated this means "my dear fellow, would you kindly desist"

martpol said...


Is that similar to the Glaswegian "away tae f***"? I base my knowledge entirely on Trainspotting (the book), of course.

malty said...

Yes indeedy martpol although chances are that the Geordie version will not be accompanied by a knife in the ribs.

Ali said...

Germans always prefer eight syllables where two would do.

martpol said...

In reference to my above comment, allow me to correct Glaswegian to whatever adjective describes Edinburgh. Don't want to appear ignorant.