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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Talking about Talking

In a restaurant in Paris many years ago I couldn’t help but notice at the next table a hulking huge Texan in an eleven-gallon cowboy hat trying to decipher the menu. “What’s this ess-carr-gots thang?” he drawled in his frustration. “And what’s this pay-tease dih foize grass?” He called a waiter over to his table, and the latter patiently explained the various menu items. The Texan’s face got redder and redder with anger, and finally exploded, “Why can’t y’all jus’ speak Amurrican? It’s so much easier!”

Here in Panamá too a lot of folks from North America also seem to think it’s just an act – that the Panamanians really speak English fluently and only do the “Spanish thing” to drive these transplants crazy. Some gringos have lived here for many years and still are unable to speak the least bit of Spanish – and when someone doesn’t understand what they are saying their solution is simple: keep speaking English, but SCREAM IT AT THEM.

Speaking of restaurants, I heard one thirsty gringo, not knowing how to ask for agua, kept screaming “Water!” at the waitress. She smiled, sure she understood at last, and took him to the men’s room. You see, the word wáter means “toilet”.

As for me, I have a strange theory, but it seems to be working out pretty well. My theory is that I am a guest in this country, and therefore I must conform myself to the country, and not the country to me: it makes more sense for one person (me) to learn Spanish than for a whole country to learn English just to accommodate that one person. According to my theory, people actually do speak Spanish all the time here, even at home when there are no gringos around, and not just to drive me nuts when they see a foreign face. Therefore, I conclude, it’s my responsibility to work hard at speaking Spanish as well as I can.

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  1. Lovely. Of course the British are the same and the fact that English is becoming an international language doesn't help. I remember using my simple German in Germany and often being answered in perfect English! But living somewhere and being on holiday are two different things. There are many people from here that move to Spain and live entirely (or try to) in ex pat communities. OK til things go wrong. (rather rude too, I think)
    The issue of people speaking their own language just so others can't understand is alive and well in Wales. It's a fairly common story among English people that they go into a shop in Wales and the people in there immediately switch into Welsh just so they can't understand! I think they just can't get their heads round the fact that people actually are first language Welsh and it's their preferred means of communication with other Welsh speakers. I have lived nearly all my life in Wales and have never known this happen.

  2. Dydd da, Louise! Thank you for your thoughts. I, personally, see no wrong in tourists coming to a non-English-speaking country and doing their best in the only language they can speak, English - provided they remember they are guests and have to accept the reality that not everybody will understand them. Shouting louder, in other words, is not the way to batter down the wall of noncommunication. I also personally don't think it's polite to switch into Spanish or Welsh or whatever simply to confound the tourists, though it is their country and they do have the right. On the other hand, if one is going to live in Wales or Panama, one should make the effort to learn at least the rudiments of the language! :-)

  3. Hi James, I totally agree. My point about the Welsh is that I don't think they do switch but english tourists assume they do. There are a lot of borrowed words in Welsh so I wonder if, sometimes, as someone walks in they hear one or two english words so assume they're speaking English and then switched. I agree about learning some of the language too. Although there are very few, if any, Welsh speaking people who don't speak English I think its right that road signs etc. should be bilingual. some people complain about the cost or that it's confusing. When I hear that I feel like suggesting that the English should be dropped! It doesn't take much to learn that araf means slow, for instance!

  4. As you know, I've been a "cymraphile" all my life - have picked up the rudiments of the Welsh language, enough to enjoy reading poetry and a bit of the old stories - though I haven't used it much in years, and now it's lying fallow in the back of my brain somewhere. But I do recall asking a couple who were speaking Welsh to me to slow down so I might be able to understand every third word instead of every twelfth, so yes, I know the word "araf"!

    I, for one, continue to hope the Welsh language will keep strengthening - it is a beautiful language with a great literature, and - well, as I've written elsewhere ("The Circle of Life"), I knew the last native speakers of two languages; since both are now gone, I have in effect seen two languages die.

    Back to the subject at hand, this is why I am trying to find more time to pursue my study of the Ngäbe Buglé language, which is another beautiful tongue that I hope survives.