Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 17, 2011

Here in Babel

“‘Scuse me, avocado. Burning your foot now?”

If someone came up to you and addressed you that way, you would edge away, assuming that they were insane or perhaps the victim of too much Fox News — both circumstances to be avoided. Unless, perhaps, you work at a place that accustoms you to dealing with foreign visitors: Disneyland, for example, or the Department of Motor Vehicles. Then you would know that this is another soul struggling with the arcane and impenetrable English language. Who knows, perhaps they’ve carefully composed this inquiry in advance, using a traveler’s phrase book or even some app on their cell phone. Unfortunately, even if one has in mind all the words, it’s tough to assemble them into a sensible sentence, and even harder to pronounce the words  the way native speakers do.

And, you know, every language is an equal opportunity offender: they’re all difficult and obscure and tough to pronounce for non-natives.

That’s why I’m considering giving up trying to speak the local language when I travel to foreign places like Italy and France and Texas. I had some genuine successes on our recent trip, managing to come up with not only vocabulary but genuinely (more or less) correct grammar when I had to ask directions or express an interest in a menu item. Unfortunately, it was just a cheap trick, and one that backfired repeatedly. Suppose one DOES manage to come up with a correct rendering for a line like, “Pardon, me, can you tell me which train will take me to town X?” Well, if your vocabulary’s right, and if you’ve put everything in more or less the correct word order AND if you’ve pronounced the words so that they are reasonably intelligible, then the natural response of the other person — a grumpy, underpaid, underappreciated tired ticket agent at the end of her shift, perhaps — will be to assume that despite your obvious foreign status (it’s still easy to tell, even without looking at those American SHOES), you are capable of continuing a conversation in that language.

Ah, there’s the rub. Because they are going to speak back to you in their naturally adroit and incredibly rapid French or Italian or Texan, and that’s when, despite your best efforts, you get that LOOK on your face. They take one look at your expression, sigh, and ask you, “If you want the next train it’s at 15:00 on track 6.” In darned good English.

Reading signs in shop windows or glancing through the local newspaper is not speaking the language. Asking for directions to the Louvre or the bathroom (depending on one’s priorities of the moment) (the Louvre has excellent bathrooms, by the way) is not really speaking the language. It’s nice, it’s fun, it’s challenging, it shows a certain deference to the local people, but unless you can process the response — quickly, mind you — and generate YOUR response at a conversational pace, it’s frustrating for you AND for the person who’s trying to assist you.

Conversation happens all at once. It requires an immense fund of vocabulary because every human’s ability to generate interesting sentences is vast, and, unless you know hundreds and hundreds of words and what they sound like when spoken — not just what they look like on the page — you are quickly overwhelmed. What’s that word for sugar? For postage stamp? What that verb when you’d like to buy something but don’t want to sound rude asking, “I want…? What’s the second-person formal form of “to be?” Does it precede the participle or follow it?

When you see a three year-old playing in some picturesque village square somewhere else in the world, THAT kid can whip you up and down in the local language (and may be starting to learn English, too, dude).

It’s especially true in most cities and small towns that are still frequented by tourists: most shopkeepers and service people have a command of English, and things happen faster when you admit to yourself that you’re better off in English. On their side, this lets them know from the outset which lingual gear to engage, “OK, I’m speaking English to this person,” instead of being caught half-way between the two languages, fooled by the opening salvo in a respectable representation of the local tongue, only to have to shift into English, anyway.

If you get in a car and visit less frequented spots or wander away from your tour group into the forest, or get on the wrong bus and go to a part of the city where tourists don’t normally go, then it’s a different matter. Even some rudimentary language skills may be necessary. The Counselor has performed admirably in a number of situations when the vicissitudes of life overtook us deep in darkest Umbria and other wild places. Once, when we had a car break down, she performed heroic feats of Italian communication with the owner of a little repair shop who — so far as I could tell — spoke utterly no English. I know she did not go to Italy equipped with the terminology for “catalytic converter,” but she came through. Numerous times she’s deciphered seemingly incomprehensible directions to roads or towns. I admire that.

I enjoy languages, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the connections between them, their differences and similarities and their long histories, but this trip was an especially humbling one. I often started well, getting out of the gate free of the pack and with the first turn clearly in my vision. My grammatical racehorse was running at a thoroughbred pace, putting each word carefully in its correct spot in our careful run toward the finish. But with the first rejoinder from my conversational partner, my face got THAT LOOK. I stumbled, dropped the reins, and guided my staggering steed over to the outer rail to await the ambulance.

The long-held truism is that the locals everywhere appreciate attempts by visitors to speak the language. Maybe that’s true in a casual encounter, but, if you’re buying tickets or ordering a meal or conducting business at the bank, you’re dealing with busy people who have work do to. It’s better just to get on with it in English.

Granted, it’s better to be somewhat prepared than not prepared at all. Being able to express basic needs is helpful, as in, “I need a doctor,” but don’t expect that you’re going to be able to say, “My left foot has fallen off and I need a doctor.” There are too many parts of the body and too many ailments. Keep it simple.

There was one bright moment. We’d newly arrived in one of the towns we stayed in and were walking along the sidewalk. A couple of local residents passed us and we exchanged “bonjour.” And, surprisingly, the woman said something else to me. It took three entire seconds for me to process it, but what she said was, “Comment ca-va?” “How goes it?” (Or, as she probably intended it, “How are you doing?”) I was stunned. It’s practically the first thing you learn to say in French, and there it was. A lesson from Chapter 1 of “Learning French I.” And, thanks to that early drill, more than 40 years ago, I knew how to make the proper reply. Well, I have a lot of lessons to go.



  1. Is this some new puzzle to challenge crosswords and soduko? “Scuse me avocado. Are you burning your foot now?” What did the French speaker mean in English? Lacking any knowledge of the French language and possessing precious few communicable thoughts in English might be considered a disadvantage in this new competition but, how about, “So, my peach. What brings you here looking so hot?”

    Otherwise, nice piece!


    • I just made it up, based on the fact that the French word for avocado is “avocat,” which also means “lawyer.” We saw a list of French flavors from the ice cream vendor, Fenocchio, in Nice, that listed a “lawyer” flavor. A somewhat careless translation.


      • I’d be REEEEEEEL careful before I bought a lawyer flavor, for sure!


      • It’s okay. You sign a waiver of responsibility and a non-disclosure agreement first, along with a binding arbitration clause.


  2. You know, lawyers are such deal killers. I think I’ll just buy vanilla and move on.


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