Guest Post: Speaking in Tongues

Last year, after bidding a blubbering adieu to my Labrador, Henry, my husband and I uprooted our lives in Austin and moved to London for his next step up the startup ladder. Within a week I was consoling my dogless self by interrupting assorted cafe loungers and park joggers, asking wide-eyed and breathy if I could please pet their dogs. Be it a Frenchie, a Basset, a Chiweenie or mutt, my desperation inspired little more than concerned stares and hastily shortened leashes. It wasn’t until I heard a small English girl at the farmer’s market ask if she could “stroke” a pup lounging under the potato stall that I realized, if “pet” means to them what “stroke” meant to me, then I’d been propositioning pugs left, right and center.

But such is the inevitable pitfall of language learning and, if it can happen when transitioning between American English and English English, then the perils of tangling with a foreign tongue are far more fearsome.

In high school I was taught the basics of Spanish from a squat Costa Rican woman who had a cutout of Ricky Martin taped to her file cabinet and dreams of marrying Dick Cheney. Señora had us play games like Strip Spanish, in which she would confiscate various school supplies for each incorrect answers until we were reduced to parting with articles of clothing. First a shoe, then a sock, then the other shoe and the other sock. The loser had to sit barefoot in the blue recycling bin for five minutes. My peers began to wear layers to class, but I didn’t need to because I was good at Spanish. Great, even. I could charlar about my tarea until the vacas came home and la profesora and I would laugh and laugh at the kids who tripped their way through the irregular subjunctive. Señora would pull a toy gun from her skirt pocket and click the trigger at the idiot del dia. “You lose,” she’d say.

When I arrived in Spain to backpack with friends after graduation, I strutted the streets benevolently spouting my knowledge. Hostel reservations need to be made? I got it covered, guey. Food needs ordering? No problemo. Bus schedule needs deciphering? And the little plastic gun is drawn. Turns out when you ask a Spanish station attendant where to coger un autobús – which literally means to catch a bus in most of Latin America – you are asking him in no polite terms where you might find a motor coach with which to copulate.

Bam. I lose.

I lost when I tried to order hot chocolate at a cafe in Barcelona only to learn that I’d employed a slang term and actually ordered hashish. I lost when I told an Irish dry cleaner that I needed a stain removed from a pair of pants, which apparently means underwear. And I lost again when I poked fun of a fanny pack-wearing tourist at the London Eye. (You can look up that particularly profane noun on your own.)

But, in learning new languages, I’ve become more gentle with fellow foreigners. I no longer mock my Italian friend when she asks to borrow a shit of paper, my Pakistani friend when he tells me how wery wery sad he is about the var, or my British friends who often take office breaks to go outside and bum a fag. We expats have bonded in the knowledge that it’s only a matter of time until our next opportunity for self humiliation and total boobery. We even encourage each other to forge forward, to wade head on into those frothy waters of lingual doom. Which is why I recently signed up for French lessons.

In case you aren’t familiar with that particular lexical mine field, French is a language  patrolled by citizen soldiers fully armed with rules set by the Académie française, an organization that regulates standards of vocabulary and grammar. In other words: The Language Police. Stutter over the passe compose in France, and the French won’t only let you know, they’ll slap your hand with a proverbial baguette and correct you.

But I’ve found classes in London to be a safe way to test the waters, to fumble through idioms and play along in mock conversations. Not that I need that, because it turns out I’m just as good at French as I am at Spanish. On the first day of class, I stood in front of the room and introduced myself with the eloquence and annunciation of a native. I told them, that I’m a male American born in 1885. That I drive a motorcycle and that for my last vacation, I sexually visited the entire city of Lyon.

The teacher’s eyes grew wide, clearly impressed by my syntax. The other students looked to one another with arched eyebrows and down turned lips. I felt terrible for the classmate selected to follow my flawless performance. She was sure to stammer, to falter, to fall. I felt for her, I really did.

But we all have to start somewhere.

Andrea Duty blogs at This New View.

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6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Speaking in Tongues

  1. good luck. I just moved back to Paris a few weeks ago with less than stellar French skills and had enough bad experiences with the French language police to last a lifetime in less than a month. I’ve been slapped with a baguette more times than I can count already. I suggest learning Italian instead. or Russian. anything but French 🙂

  2. Great post! My husband is from the Czech Republic, so I loved the line about the friend who is “wery wery sad… about the var.” When we lived on Vine Street, my husband could never understand why people couldn’t find “Wine Street” (and we still make fun of the way he says wegetables).

    But my favorite was when he ordered pizza under the last name Fila…F as in Phillip. He couldn’t understand why I busted out laughing. And I don’t correct him. I think his mistakes are too cute 🙂

  3. I remember two big language mistakes when I lived in Japan. Once, I told my (native English-speaking) teacher that I was leaving class early, using the verb that meant “to leave and never come back again.” I translated another word as “tails linked together” that really meant “seven jewels.” My Japan-born teacher had a great laugh with that one.

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