Tuesday, 14 January 2014

On Being Understood in a Second Language

To be understood and listened to is, naturally, satisfying. But in a different language it is truly a relief! Carrying on any sort of conversation that includes questions and answers that is not in your native tongue is great. I would hazard a guess that more people spoke another language (or two!) "back in the day", especially in places like Europe. With neighbouring countries a two hour train ride away, it makes sense.

Nowadays, I would say that English is our world's common language. The language of technology, air traffic control, marine radio; found in all corners of the globe in the form of music, television, and perhaps most specifically, film. So, great for English speakers - easy peasy! However, because of this, it also means those of us who speak English might not take that extra step of learning another language.

I should add though, that even if you are an English speaker and want to speak another language, the speakers of that other language might not be helpful. They want to practise their English, and so very often you are left jabbering half heartedly. I was once checking into a hostel in Hamburg, Germany, very proud of the German I had been practising on the train from Denmark. (The rest of the carriage thought I was probably crazy, muttering to myself, but there we are...). When it was finally my turn, I stepped up to the desk, handed over my passport and began my rehearsed words. The girl behind the desk nodded, spoke back to me, then stopped, looking at my passport.

She looked up and said, "Why are you speaking German?"
"Er...to practise?"
"Oh. Right. But you're English?" She handed the passport back to me, shaking her head, and began launching into the hostel spiel in perfect, though German accented, English.

So much for that.

Even in Amsterdam when I was speaking Dutch to people behind the counters in the shops, they still replied in English. It makes me wonder sometimes, do I have a massive stamp on my head that reads "British - please only speak English"?? It is infuriating when trying to speak to people in their own language and they insist on speaking English in return. Even in Mexico it was like this. I know my Spanish is bad, but come on!

It can be terrifying when someone asks you a question though...you know you have to answer and there's always a fear that nodding and smiling won't cut it.

Did you hear so and so was juggling on his bicycle while texting and eating a sandwich? Fell right off and the other cyclists didn't stop. (By the way, this is how I picture myself dying - Dutch cyclists are mad...)

Nodding and smiling to stuff like this will leave you alone in a corner at a party, for sure.

So, as I say, being understood and not sounding like an utter idiot is always a HUGE relief. This week I had to have an interview at de Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. It was simple in principle - I had to speak with someone to figure out what level I should be at for a Dutch language course. The interview was all in Dutch, naturally.

Spelling my name was the hardest part of the entire interview. (In Dutch, the letter 'a' is pronounced "ah", the letter 'e' is "a" as in "say", and 'i' is "e" as in key. And I have a lot of vowels in my full name [no pun intended], so you can imagine my trouble). I felt a right idiot - couldn't even spell my name properly - but the rest of the interview went surprisingly well.

I was so relieved once I left the office - I'd only used four English words in a pinch, and I was on my way to joining a class. We even joked a bit and had laugh. Phew! Then today I went to a hairdresser's - now THAT is a time you want to make sure you are understood! I can report that it went successfully.

So far, so good. I am really looking forward to learning more in a classroom setting. It's one thing learning from family and "on the street" as it were, but understanding grammar and the "why" of it all will be helpful. In this day and age, although English is used all around the world, we have so much more access to other languages. We English speakers have a better chance than before to learn another language. From Rosetta Stone programs to good ol' YouTube - "we have the technology"!

Learning another language is such a wonderful thing - it brings you closer to another culture and is really fun. One of the things that older people often say that they regret was not learning another language well. I find too that once you learn one, the second and third will come that much easier. I am in no way a linguist, and am only fairly average when it comes to these sorts of things, but I enjoy it, so therefore it becomes that much easier.

Imagine, arriving in a new country and being able to read some of the signs or even the menu; being able to say a few words - it is great for the life of traveller. I know a few words in lots of languages, which on the surface seems fairly useless, but in my travels I have found that it has helped beyond belief. Along with a smile (and lots of hand signals) it clears the way to better communication. Give it a go!