A beer and a cheese sandwich. That’s the amount of a foreign language you need to get by. You’ll never go thirsty or starve, although you might spend your days in the gutter and your nights hallucinating.
Having worked as a music examiner in a variety of countries, I’ve picked up a smattering of language each time. According to the great Homer Simpson ‘Every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain’, but at least I can ‘apa kabar’ with the Indonesians, ‘merhaba’ with the Turkish and ‘W’ho te sɛn’ with the Ghanaians. They smile, I feel smug. Win.
Beyond this stage is tricky, though. As soon as I ambitiously try to construct sentences, one of two things happens.
a) What I say makes no sense, like ‘my hovercraft is full of eels’. This provokes a politely bemused smile as fake as a Taiwanese Rolex.
b) I make sense. I get a reply. Fast. In Foreign.
And it’s not just because I’m British. A recent European Union survey says a whopping 39% of us ‘claim’ to speak a second language. That’s better than Italy (38%) and Hungary (35%). We’re probably helped by the 12% of our population born abroad, but enough stats.
Let me take you to Hong Kong, to witness my inspired attempts to massacre their language. Cantonese is spectacularly dangerous when it goes wrong.
I’m in the exam room; a small child sits at the piano. D major is the go-to scale for most piano exams, and having heard it translated into Cantonese several hundred times, I can now tell you that it’s pronounced ‘dee die doo’. Unfortunately, ‘fuck off’ is also pronounced ‘dee die doo’. You see the difference? No, nor did I. It’s all to do with the way you sing it, rising or falling on each note. Let us draw a veil over that incident. The child is still scarred.
Turkey, then. Turkish I had a real go at, stimulated by a certain love interest. However, finding that there is actually a word for ‘you are apparently one of those we weren’t able to make a Scandinavian’ (İskandinavyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız) was rather off-putting, when all I wanted was beer and a cheese sandwich.
Italy! I almost gained adequacy! The opera Pagliacci was my teacher, and I still deliver Vesti La Giubba with enough heart-rending melodrama to cause small mammals to weep. Italian lessons gave me confidence. Oh dear.
In Rimini I harangued both an armed policeman and the hotel receptionist about my lost sunglasses. I need my sunglasses, I can’t go out without sunglasses, has anyone handed in any sunglasses? Too late I realised that I wasn’t using the word for ‘sunglasses’. I was using the word for ‘sleigh bells’. Oh dear.
And then I worked in Naples. The Neapolitan accent is like Italian Scouse but with louder hand gestures. In that wine-growing region, they sniffed at serving beer, but I had no trouble with the cheese sandwich.
‘Pizza, per favore!’