There is a perception of the Englishman abroad in which he is dressed in baggy trousers and a hat, and doesn’t speak the language because, of course, everyone should speak English. So in order to communicate with the locals he talks slowly and loudly and thinks that they understand really, but are too bloody-minded to admit it.
While I don’t subscribe to that viewpoint, I do worry that if English and Spanish don’t assert themselves, we’re all going to have to learn Mandarin, which is all very well if you do it as a schoolkid, but once you get past a certain age it becomes more difficult.
The expat has an unwritten obligation to learn the language of his adopted country. It’s only polite, after all, and not to do so can appear arrogant.
It might be a minority language that you secretly feel should be allowed to disappear quietly, but while it exists and is the chief tool of communication, you have to make an effort.
In Suriname that means getting to grips with Dutch (the local language Sranan tongo (AKA taki taki) might be fun, but it can wait). First, find your Dutch teacher. My wife and I did. We took taxis to the other side of the city twice a week to take part in mixed-level classes. Now, when you and your classmates are all absolute beginners, the term mixed-level might seem inappropriate, but in this case it is accurate.
The classes are given in English – in other words the teacher teaches in English. That presents a problem if, for instance, your classmates are an Indian man from India, rather than a local Hindustani, and a girl from French Guiana, who speaks, yes, French.
The teacher can’t keep everyone happy. Either she’s crawling along in first gear for the benefit of those who don’t really understand what she’s saying, or she’s racing along and leaving them trailing in the distance, to accommodate those who do understand her and are capable of progressing quite quickly.
The teacher can’t win, although to her credit she discreetly switches between gears during each class so that both of the sub-groups have it their way for a while.
Progress is made and after a couple of months and a test, I am the proud owner of a certificate announcing that I know a little more than someone who knows nothing at all.
I can tell people my name, age and country of origin. I can tell the time (in a hesitant, not-really-sure way) and can ask someone how they are.
It pays to remember, though, that this is classroom stuff. In real life people don’t stick to the script, they have different accents, they use slang terms, throw in bits of taki taki or Chinese, Hindi, Javanese etc. and you lose track and confidence almost immediately.
A classic example comes in a Chinese restaurant. We arrive just after 5:30, not deliberately, but because we’ve been out all day and it feels like dinner time. Although the doors are open, the lights are on and the staff are there, they’re not open yet. Through sign language it is explained to us that the chef is asleep. This is clearly a problem.
They give us a glass of wine each to pass the time, and agree to turn on the airconditioning.
In due course the chef arrives (apparently) and we move on to the issue of ordering food from a menu written in Dutch. The young Chinese waitress attempts to help us for a minute or two before giving up and going away.
We eventually secure the services of a Chinese boy who speaks a bit of English but is unaccustomed to human contact because he spends all day and night playing games on a computer. Nice kid, though, and his parents must be very proud of him, if they remember him after all that time hiding in his bedroom.
The food is fantastic. The restaurant only recently opened, and it seems they have a hotshot chef, brought over from China to get the place off to a flying start. His only problem is that he doesn’t speak Dutch, either, so the local waitresses can’t get things across to him any better than they can to us.
The gawky waiter brings a bottle of red wine that is dark and murky and tastes muddy. In the UK I would send it back, but here I get the feeling that even if I could explain to them, they wouldn’t understand why I was refusing to accept what I asked for and they have brought.
Perhaps just around the corner in technologyland, or possibly Technologielaan, there is a solution to international language differences. Esperanto was developed 125 years ago but didn’t catch on – and it sounded too Italian for my liking, anyway.
Ah well. Ik heet Chris. Ik kom uit England . Hoe gaat het? Tot ziens. That’s “My name is Chris. I’m English (not exactly, but it’s too complicated to explain.) How are you? Bye.”