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.