“Hey, where y’arl frarm?”, asked the American lady whilst we were waiting for a guided tour around the beautiful Teatro Nacional in San José, Costa Rica on the very first day of my January holiday.
“England”, I replied, knowing that to our friends across the water that would encompass the entire United Kingdom, and actually to them London would have been enough to describe my location, even if I live over 6 hours’ drive away.
“Y’arl speak Sparenish?”
“No, but I’m hoping to learn some basics here”, I ventured.
“Oh done whirrry”, came the inevitable. “Mose peopul heeurr know enough to git baay”.
Strange, I thought, although I didn’t respond because the tour guide was clearly ready to start showing us the magnificent marble statues in the theatre lobby. I had assumed we were the ones supposed to be getting by, not the indigenous population.
In fairness to my otherwise very pleasant fellow traveller, I hadn’t made all that much effort myself up to that point. I could have capitalised on marginal time and spent the two hours of delay before our flight left Gatwick or even some of the eleven-hour flight itself memorising the introductory pages of my Collins pocket phrase book and dictionary, but I hadn’t done so. Mind still elsewhere. Not mentally prepared for the trip I’d been almost certain would be cancelled like so many other events of the past 2 years.
Travelling anywhere with a similar selection of letters, i.e. anywhere apart from areas using an Arabic alphabet or South-East Asian writing characters, it’s small wonder almost everyone everywhere knows some English. You only have to look at a poster, drinks machine, high street window to see it all around you, or listen to the radio in a café to hear it. There’s a constant, albeit partial, diet of English that drip feeds anyone with the slightest attention span.
Yet I can’t help but feel we should at least try. I don’t speak or read Spanish and being able to speak Italian can be both help and hindrance. Many words are the same or similar enough to sound nearly the same, but different enough to cause confusion. Simply speaking Italian quickly with an attempted Spanish accent would be cheating and lazy, I felt. Eventually I did dig out the phrase book as a starting point, and it worked some of the time. However it seemed to be intended for use in mainland Spain, standard Spanish, and didn’t always work in terms of the expected pronunciation, emphasis, or vocabulary in Central America. I asked to borrow a pen from the reception desk in one hotel, using the word that appeared in my dictionary –“lápiz”. After frowning at me for a split second, the receptionist asked if I meant a ”lapicera”, which is less common according to my online lexicons, but obviously widely used in that part of the country. Equally as important was to keep my eyes open and look at the road signs during the long journeys on our road trip: “ceder el paso”, the messages on buildings: “se vende”, and shops: “rebajas en ropa infantil”.
I have an undisputed fascination for languages and can even find them as exciting as the attractions I have gone on vacation to see. I take a childlike delight in the simple pleasure of saying something in someone else’s language and having them reply. The novelty of this will never wear off. And let’s face it – it doesn’t take much effort to learn the first steps: Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, a coffee with milk, a beer and a margherita. These are simple things that make a difference. In my opinion, it’s not about how well the staff of a restaurant, a national park or a museum speak English, it’s about courtesy. Offering a modest attempt shows a willingness to do things on someone else’s terms; a barrier is broken.
So what holds us anglophones, or at least many of us, back?
To me there are a number of answers to this question. Some people would argue that they simply have no aptitude for languages. A (hopefully) small number have a sense of entitlement, particularly if they are paying for something, or feel there is just no point in trying if the other end of the conversation speaks English anyway. In my years as a teacher accompanying school exchange visits to Marseille and Toulouse, the pupils would often complain that their attempts to communicate in French received an English reply, and I would always urge them to fight back and stand their ground: politely insist on speaking French. Another drawback is that others want to practise their English.
All of the above. But I have an additional theory. Like so many other skills, to advance in a language you have to be prepared to show up and try, to make the unavoidable mistakes, to be corrected and to learn from the errors. While staying at a sleepy hotel high in the cloud forest at El Miradores de Quetzales, one unusually patient waiter went above and beyond his obligations and pointed out a number of mistakes, for example teaching me the difference between a wineglass and a tumbler. Clearly in a busy city in high tourist season no one would have the time to pander to my desire to learn in such a way, but I was grateful for the indulgence and once started there is a certain snowball effect in accumulating words. But whether it’s pride or embarrassment, not everyone wants to be seen to make a mistake, and sometimes when we are feeling less than confident keeping silent seems the preferred option.
Let’s overcome the pride and the embarrassment. Small steps can do a lot to cast a more favourable light on the reputation of a nationality. Many people are willing to take a few tentative steps, but when it comes to attempting other people’s languages overseas, we English-speakers have some way to go. So let’s jump in and have a go – it really is worth the effort.