Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Being Agreeable

                There’s a phase when you’re first learning a foreign language when you almost understand what’s being said to you, but not quite.

                When I was teaching English in Barcelona, I worked with some businessmen who, at first glance, already spoke the language very well. We would sit and discuss the news in a British paper, and I would interrupt when they made a small mistake or used a “detour” to avoid a difficult construction they weren’t sure of.  Things like, “If I had known that by that time I would have been there for six hours…” might come out as “I didn’t know that at that time I’m already going to be there for six hours...”  Minor, but significant.

                Once I recall a man telling me, “Sorry, I slept late.”  He was a bit bleary-eyed, so I checked. “What time did you go to bed?”
              “Three-thirty," he replied. It takes years to notice the difference between what he said and “I went to sleep late.”

One danger is that the learner may partially understand something, with fatal consequences. When I was getting competent in Spanish I once had a barroom conversation with a man called Pepillo, who slurred his speech when fully sober and was basically incomprehensible when drunk. I knew he was talking about his little farm across the river.  Most farmers in that little village talked about their farms, the price of crops and the scarcity of rainfall to the exclusion of anything else. So at every pause, I just said, “Si, si.” It seemed the polite thing to do while I was waiting for unconsciousness to overtake him. We shook hands as he staggered off home.
           The next afternoon I was in the plaza, waiting for the shop to open. Pepillo rode up on his mule and shouted something angrily at me before turning up a side street.  I couldn’t decipher it, so I asked someone what he had said.

“He said you had agreed to buy his farm last night and then didn’t have the courtesy to turn up,” he told me.
          The most dangerous word in a foreign language is “yes”.

I was getting my hair cut yesterday by a bright young man from some Eastern European country or other.  He was very personable; he agreed with everything I said. He responded in the affirmative to every instruction about how I wanted my hair cut: “Yes, yes.”
           It was a pleasant experience. And then I remembered.  After a couple of test sentences, I said, “Would you please slice my ears off with your cutthroat razor, roll them up and push them up my nostrils?”

Smile unwavering, the agreeable young man said, “Yes, yes.”
          Don’t say: “Short back and sides.”

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