Life in the Tower of Babel

Job opportunities for language graduates. Pity no-one had invented universities yet.

According to biblical myth Yahweh got a tad disgruntled with the builders of the tower of Babel on the grounds that “They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.”, which alarmed him a bit. (Understandable really, when you look at some of the things we’ve managed to do anyway.) So he sabotaged us all by saddling us with dozens of different languages, thereby rendering their various speakers incomprehensible to one another and incidentally paving the way for embarrassing misunderstandings ranging from asking the waiter for a wild boar when what you really need is an ashtray, all the way up to slaughtering entire populations because you imagine they’ve been infecting you with the Black Death.

Not referring to a tobacco habit, one assumes.

While we seem to have laid off the mass extermination for the moment (though quick perusal of the historical record suggests that it would be unwise to get too complacent), low-level bafflement continues apace. Not that we can blame that entirely on Yahweh and his meddling – try asking an American if he wants to come outside to smoke a fag and you’ll see what I mean. And those people are alleged to speak English – what chance have we got with anyone else?

Still, at least the Almighty had the consideration to leave some similarities between at least a few of his new languages, with the result that it is entirely possible to conduct a conversation in Italian on one side and French on the other and have both parties understand exactly what’s going on despite the fact that neither one of them speaks the other language. Mind you, it probably helps that all I’m usually talking about is lift tickets, opening hours and tomorrow’s weather – I can’t imagine it working too well if you’re trying to negotiate fisheries policy.

One handy side effect of God’s decree that there should be no talking in class is that I get paid an extra 50€ a month just for being able to speak my own language. Initially I felt a bit of a fraud over this (it isn’t as though I find it much of an effort, after all), though lately I have come to the conclusion that they’re getting an absolute bargain, given that I’ve spent over 40 years perfecting it.

A Scotsman. Incomprehensible, possibly, but definitely not French.

Not that I use it on English customers much, mind you, since most of them seem incapable of recognising their own language let alone communicating in another one. I have on several occasions had to look someone in the eye and say slowly and clearly: “I am speaking English to you now”, because they have stared at me in befuddlement on being addressed in their native tongue and told me that they don’t speak French. I know people sometimes have problems with English in a Scots accent, but you can’t tell me it sounds remotely like French. And even when they’ve got the hang of the fact that I’m blatantly a native speaker they still wander off muttering merci at me in an execrable accent.

If I could muster up a reasonable level of Italian I could claim 50€ a month for that as well during the summer (just speaking French to them and having them understand it is considered to be cheating and not bonus-worthy), so when JC spent the winter working with a load of Italian ski instructors I thought I could cadge a few useful phrases. Unfortunately they all turned out to be aficionados of the game of Let’s See What We Can Make The Funny Foreigner Say, so the only barely repeatable phrase he came home with was ‘cock, what shitty weather’. While I can see that this was very useful for almost all of last winter, it doesn’t really help when you’re trying to sell lift tickets to Italian nuns.

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About misplacedperson

Camping and snowboarding for a living. It may not be a career, but it's certainly a life.
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8 Responses to Life in the Tower of Babel

  1. But whom among your employers is going to know whether or not your grasp of Italian is reasonable?

  2. I thought you were going to get stuck into the old italiano?! 50€ is not to be sneezed at! On all the most recent occasions I have been back to France, I always seem to have a foreigner in tow. This provokes all French people to address me in English which throws me completely. During nearly six years of living in France, nobody every spoke to me in anything other than French, and now I get the whole ”Ello Madame, ‘ow are you today? Can I ‘elp you wiz anysing?’ Cue totally blank stare on my part. I’ll try not to come to your ticket office should I ever lose my mind and decide to take up winter sports… ;-)

  3. Tracy says:

    At least they gave you the 50€, during my stint at the Compagnie du Mont Blanc, they insisted the 50€ was only payable if you passed the test. However, it’s not possible to take the test in your native language – and apparently there is no test in French! The fact that they had actually employed a non-french person was considered my bonus. They then allowed me to take the test in Italian – but only over the telephone and everyone knows that you can’t possibly pass without waving your arms around!

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