Monday, 23 April 2012

How to Speak a Foreign Language

I just saw the statistics on this little blog of mine.  There’s a page that shows you a map of the world and highlights countries where you are being read.  And guess what.  I’ve got a viewer in Russia!
I wish I knew how to say “thank you” in Russian.  In fact, I wish I was a better linguist generally. I once studied Hindi for a few weeks in India. I can still count to five, and I think I remember that the taped course told me how to say, “Waiter, please take your finger out of my wine glass.”

I can find a toilet in France and ask the price of things in a whole lot of countries. But it’s dangerous to speak a little bit of another language.  I have a friend named Phred, who once told a group of Spanish peasant women that he had recently experienced an orgasm.  He was trying to say that he was tired.

I used to speak Swahili.  That’s a fact, though you wouldn’t believe it now. When I lived in Kenya it was essential, but it’s not all that useful in London. So, ni me sahao yote (I’ve forgotten it all). I do still speak Spanish. I learned to do that in a village in the mountains of The Dominican Republic where no one spoke a word of English.  The method was simple: learn or starve.  I recommend it.

When I first got there I was asked to say a few words to an assembled group of local farmers.  I went into a room with maybe a hundred hard-faced peasants, sitting with their hats in their laps. I had stayed up the night before, employing the “word for word” method.  It works like this: you take an English word and look up its equivalent in Spanish. Never mind grammar, syntax, colloquialisms and all that.  Put a big smile on your face and go for it.

I still marvel at the hospitality of those people, who sat without a twitch or a murmur or a guffaw, as I said, “Ladies and horses, I am very pregnant today.”

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