I cannot end this series on the memory-making misadventures of foreign travel without mentioning the perils of trying to speak in a foreign language. Miscommunication, as Shakespeare and Sheridan famously proved, is the heart of humor.
Not that Americans often risk speaking in a foreign language. We’re no good at languages, which isn’t entirely our fault. For one thing, English is the closest thing there is to a universal language; and it’s all too easy, when things get sticky, to revert to English. Several years ago, having brushed up on my German, I made up my mind to speak nothing but German in Austria. So in Vienna, searching for Michaelerkirche, a beautiful church with a crypt where you can view the mummified remains of wealthy burghers buried in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I stopped an older, well-educated-looking man on the street and asked directions—in perfect German, I thought. The man, thinking to be kind I suppose, answered me in English. But I persevered, and we had a lovely conversation, he (an Austrian) speaking English and I (an American) speaking German.
There’s a second strike against us as well. Like Australians, we Americans are isolated on a large, mainly English-speaking continent. With apologies to the ranks of long-suffering language professors, it is possible—even likely—to complete three years of a language in high school and two more in college, with respectable grades, without actually being able to say anything. Of this I am proof.
After spending a semester during college at the University of Freiburg in Germany’s Black Forest, however, I came down with the language bug. Once home (dreaming of myself as a polyglot) I purchased a bunch of those pop-in-your-DVD-player language tapes. The result is that I can now speak Spanish, German, Italian, Norwegian, and Chinese—not fluently, of course, but well enough to get myself into trouble.
In An Essay on Criticism (1709), Alexander Pope said: A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.
Pope was right. In my German class in Freiburg, we were given a phrase book (I still have it) which included such enigmatic sentences as, “I regretfully decline your proposal of marriage,” and “Perhaps a man’s cut would suit you better.” Did our professor think it likely that we would get a proposal of marriage in four-months’ time? And to whom (man or woman) could the last sentence ever be appropriately spoken?
Like phrase books, language DVDs have their limitations. What if you arrive at the train terminal in Oslo, for example, and say (as you were taught), “I would like to buy a ticket to Bergen,” and the ticket master does not reply—as the DVD promised he would—”One way or round trip. First or second class?” What if the menu in a village in rural France offers, not the dishes you carefully memorized, but the breast of a “small flying thing.” What sort of small flying thing, you want to ask—pigeon? guinea fowl? parakeet? bat?—but you have no words for that.
Once, in a remote hotel in Slovakia, the waitress tried gamely, in her limited German, to explain the set dinner menu. We established that the main course was a smallish, four-footed animal but not beef, pork, or lamb. Finally, in desperation, the waitress backed up, lowered her head, made “horns” with her fingers and charged the table. Goat? We’ll never know for sure. But at least she tried.
That’s what I hope foreigners will decide about me: at least she tried. Because under pressure, it’s all too easy to mix up similar words and forget such essentials as verb tense and reflexives. In Germany I assured a waiter once that my husband and I taste very good indeed. Trying to help a non-meat-eating friend in China, I explained, “She’s a vegetable.” In Hungary I asked a shop assistant, “Can I help you?”
Recent business trips to China have made me feel better about myself. Like the United States, China is a large, isolated country; and outside the tourist areas, few people speak English. But they try. Our lavish breakfast buffet in Guangdong Province included “Steamed Chicken Paws.” A snack counter in a small airport in central China advertised “Presently Smashed Coffee.” And in a wonderful museum of history in Beijing, we were helpfully instructed us to “turn left in 300 inches.” Who knew we would need a tape measure?
Every one of these mix-ups is a treasured memory. Truly, I’d rather risk sounding witless than insulate myself in a tour group of fellow Americans. My dream is to find myself in some remote place where I have to dredge up the few words I know in Polish, even if it’s only, “Czy mówisz po angielsku?” Can you speak English?