On a recent business trip I was pleasantly surprised to find myself upgraded to a “superior” room. Admittedly this did make me rather question what an “inferior” room would be like (my superior room didn’t have a wardrobe, so maybe lower down the pecking order you don’t even get a bed), but still it was nice to feel appreciated. When I queried the reason for this unexpected elevation I was told “because you are trying speaking the language”.
For many British people, “trying speaking the language” just isn’t done, either because, often, the inhabitants of the country you’re visiting can do it better than you, even where it’s their third or fourth language, or out of fear, or, worst, laziness. Why bother bumbling along in a few tokenistic words of a far less-spoken language when shouting and pointing will serve you just as well?
I’ll tell you: because it’s polite.
It isn’t hard to pick up a few words of pretty much any language (note: I am yet to visit China and could find myself eating my words here). I can ask where the toilet is in seven or eight languages. Admittedly I won’t generally understand the answer, but it does sound rather fabulous in Italian (dov’e I servizi, per favour, in case you were wondering). When I go abroad I do my utmost to learn, at the very least, how to say “please”, “thank you”, “Do you speak English?” “I don’t speak [insert language]”, “good morning/evening”, “I don’t understand”, “sorry”, “can I have the bill, please?” and “where is…?”
In cities where the main impression of British is formed from stag dos, a little effort can go a long way to transform the perception that we’re all loud alcoholics who like to widdle in the streets, or simply that we’re so entitled as to believe the rest of the world should submit to our will.
And it’s so easy now! You can go onto YouTube and you can guarantee that, whatever the language, there will be some earnest vlogger waiting to regale you with a list of words in the correct accent, so you don’t even need to awkwardly spell out the letters in the guide book and hope for the best (“my hovercraft is full of eels.”)
Although, speaking another language, if you’re English, can, it turns out, result in incredulity. Note the airport security staff, who, having responded to my cheer “Labdien” (good day) and “paldies” (thank you, when, unusually, I wasn’t pulled aside for some hand luggage-related misdemeanour) in Latvian, narrowed her eyes when I said I was English. “English? But you are part Latvian?”
“You are living in Latvia?”
“No, just visiting.”
“You have Latvian boyfriend maybe?”
“You are maybe little bit Latvian somehow?”
But best of all, perhaps, was the following insult in France. Having studied briefly In Quebec, my French exceeds the above phrases, and led to an in-depth discussion at a science museum in Paris about how I wanted “billets pour le sous-marine mais pas pour le musee”. The assistant turned to my husband and spoke in French, at which my husband froze in horror. “Votre francais est assez bien. Vous etes anglais. Mais il est certainment Americain!”
Apparently this was very funny. Apparently there is a nation that, on the continent at least, ranks even below the UK after all as far as language is concerned.