If you are going to live abroad and you don’t speak the language before you go, however quickly you pick it up – and it won’t be that quick – you are going to experience a degree of alienation. That applies as much to local versions of English, with no official rights and wrongs because they have no dictionary or grammar books, as to proper languages.
Several years ago, in preparation for my move to Spanish-speaking Venezuela I read books, listened to CDs and even tuned into Venezuelan radio stations. From the books and CDs I learned typical conversations you supposedly have in typical situations. In reality they don’t happen like that because people don’t stick to the script. You’re supposed to say ‘a loaf of bread please’, the genial baker hands it to you and you leave.
In reality there are 35 different types of bread in this place, none of which you know the name of, and by the time you’ve pointed and he has missed a few times by one place or two shelves, then gone too far the other way, he’s past caring if you ever come back and you would be happy to eat the paper bag the loaf comes in. So when he eventually points out something that looks like it came out of Tutankhamun’s lunchbox, you say ‘Okay, fine,’ because you would say yes to anything.
The baker is pleased because he’s got rid of something his regulars wouldn’t touch with a garden fork, and talking of regulars, here they come, full of the joys of spring like outpatients from the Charlie Chaplin Institute for the Easily Amused. And you no longer exist: he’s got your money, you’ve got something similar to what you came for and the episode is over.
In this respect, not speaking the language puts us at a disadvantage, because we don’t know what’s going on, and it also gives a sense of power to the kind of person we could normally beat at anything from Trivial Pursuit to tiddlywinks, but who now rises like a colossus over his or her station in life –bus driver, toilet attendant etc. – because they’ve finally found someone they can look down on.
However, there is an unexpected good side to this too. Because so much of communication is speech-based, people have the power to harangue us, throwing in anything from veiled threats to intimidatory swearing, and whether we like it or not, our brains recognise the vitriol and it may have its desired effect.
But not if we don’t understand. The most high and mighty neanderthal in the most official-looking of tight, polyester uniforms can rant and rave as much as he likes, but if it goes in one ear and might as well come out the other because it doesn’t find any kind of home in the middle, he’s wasting his breath. I experienced a bit of that when I was first in Tobago and ventured into a public cark park in which the parking was haphazard, to say the least. It was a model of 21st century inclusiveness: every patch of tarmac was as good as any other, so what was a parking space and what was a lane for driving through looked the same and were treated the same. And so it was that a man climbed out of the cab of his big passenger coach and gave me de treatment. He huffed and he puffed and in his own mind he left me in no doubt as to what he thought of me. And all I could say was, ‘Are you talking to me?’ because the brothers and sisters in his particular ‘hood might have understood what he said, but I didn’t.
It’s amazing how it takes the wind out of people’s sails when their verbal spewings are revealed as being literally just hot air.
I can even sympathise with them a lot of the time, because I’m liable to rant a bit myself, particularly when confronted with someone behind a desk, telling me what I can and can’t do. I don’t know if the desk has an effect on them or on me – probably both – but they make the ludicrous assumption that I should know the rules in their world when it is the first time I’ve wandered into it. And particularly in the Caribbean, people in official capacities, however lowly, have a terrible need to be obeyed.
Ironically, you’re more likely to get a result if you don’t speak the language, because they know they can never explain what it is they need to, so a compromise becomes a logical option rather than a sign of weakness. Give the dumb foreigner a break – it’s the only way you’re going to get rid of him.