The British like to beat themselves up about their ignorance of foreign languages – ooh it’s so rude, they tell you, usually looking not particularly ashamed of themselves, it has to be said. Actually it’s not that rude at all – what’s rude is marching up to people and addressing them in a loud voice in English and then complaining when they don’t have a clue what you’re on about. An apologetic smile and a lot of comedy miming is much more likely to get you the service you desire, if only because everyone likes a clown.
But be reassured by the fact that it’s not just a British thing – French colleagues often tell me how terrible their countrymen are at speaking other languages, and how shocking it is. And Italians abroad behave exactly the same as monoglot Brits. I don’t speak Italian, signor. No, not even at that volume.
Mind you, Italians are generally more than willing to embark on the comedy mime routine, unlike Russians, who just stare at you morosely before handing over incomprehensible ID cards in Cyrillic. I don’t care who you are, sir, I just need to know whether you want ski insurance or not. (Though this is a difficult one to mime, I grant you.)
Having wasted half my life and nearly all of my expensive education on bumming about France when I ought to have been doing some sort of ‘proper’ job, I now find that people assume me to be fluent in the language. Unfortunately this is far from the truth, though I do manage to deal with daily life and hold down a (fairly uncomplicated) Francophone job, so my mastery of the lingo is functional if nothing else.
When I first started working in France it was for Eurocamp as a van driver. At this point I had nothing more to rely on than school French, which proved a poor tool when trying to book a Renault Master in for service to a place which can’t deal with anything bigger than a Twingo. You’d think Europcar would have checked that one out before telling us to get the things serviced there, but apparently not.
By the end of several summer camping seasons and numerous winters in ski resort hotels my grasp of French had improved to the extent that I could just about have actual conversations. As long as you wanted to talk about drainage, frozen food deliveries or the workings (or more likely lack of them) of an industrial dishwasher, at any rate.
A summer in Marché U revealed that my French, considered pretty good in a UK tour op environment, had in fact failed to progress beyond village idiot level. Formerly in a position of power as hotel manager, valued customer and person handing out lucrative orders, I was now merely some incompetent foreigner making the supermarket shopping experience even more irritating than usual. This put me in a position where people initially assumed that I was French (not unreasonable really) before rapidly coming to the conclusion that I was a complete retard. Quite a lot of them never made it as far as realising that I was foreign and most of the ones who did just found it annoying. One woman spent several minutes trying to ascertain where the tights were (collants, apparently, though not having worn the hideous things for 20 years I clearly wouldn’t have a clue) before stomping off muttering that she’d better go and ask someone with a brain. Probably a good strategy, madame. Sorry.
And just when you think you’ve mastered it, someone comes and knocks you off your perch. Like the chap who came in and asked me for a badger. Where are the badgers, he said cheerfully, you’ve got lots of soap in dishes but no badgers. Errrr …… Ou sont les blaireaux, yes he definitely did say what I thought he did. “Badgers!” he said again, this time miming the act of putting shaving foam on. Light dawned – shaving brushes are traditionally made of badger hairs. (I have no idea why I knew that, but it certainly came in handy – just shows that you should never turn your nose up at any piece of information, however pointless it may seem at the time.)
A summer in the supermarket proved good training for winter in the ticket sales office, where the language problem is compounded by the fact that there is a glass plate between you and the customer and you have to communicate via a not particularly effective microphone system. Winter also brings the joys of a whole slew of new vocabulary, including the word justificatif, which you have to say to every single customer. Go on, try it – bet you can’t.
I practised justificatif religiously all winter, to the extent that I can now throw it casually into any conversation at the drop of a hat without needing to take a deep breath and a run at it. It took the best part of four months and a lot of ribbing from colleagues on occasions when I wussed out and said ticket instead.
My next linguistic project is saying en dessous and managing to distinguish it from au dessus – I can hear the difference if someone else says it, but buggered if I can reproduce it myself. This is awkward given that the first means underneath and the second on top. It’s at times like this that you suspect the language was invented just to confuse the foreigner. I know, let’s have phrases which mean the exact opposite to one another but sound almost the same – what a lark! That’ll teach people to have the temerity not to be French.
According to JC, the vowel sound which I have so signally failed to master is showcased by Disney’s King Louis in its 1967 animation of The Jungle Book. So if you arrive to buy a lift ticket next winter and find the cashier swinging round the office and expressing a desire to be like you-oo-oo, don’t worry – it’s just language practice.