A Travellerspoint blog

June 2006

The Language Barrier

As a traveller in a foreign land, it is almost obligatory to try and learn some of the local language. Even if it is only "please" and "thank you," at least you can thank the taxi driver when he charges you the tourist price (normally around double the fare in some countries) and say please when you're ordering that kebab that will have you popping "Gastro-Stop" pills for the next week.

As English speakers however, we're very lucky. For historical, cultural and economic reasons you will find that no matter where you roam on our big green and blue planet, you will find someone who can mutter a few words of English. Although only the fourth most spoken language in the world, English is probably the most widespread.

However, it's easy to assume that you can go anywhere and not have to worry about being understood, simply because you can speak English. In his book Mother Tongue Bill Bryson says something along the lines of half the world speaks English and the other half tries to. It's this latter half that normally make life quite interesting.

For example, my girlfriend and I were partially abducted by a Moroccan family for a week who were desperate to show us Arabic hospitality. The only English speaker in the family was the eldest son who we had become friends with whilst staying in Fes. However, broken English is very easy to misunderstand. One day we were strolling through a green patch of countryside with our kind hosts when Yousef turned to me, gestured proudly to the field of sheep next to us and said "Here we quaff the cheep!" Now, at the time, I assumed he meant shear the sheep due to the interesting body actions which accompanied the afore-mentioned proud statement, but the other day I was standing at work when I suddenly stopped and thought "What the hell do they do to their sheep in Morocco? What exactly is quaffing? Maybe I should phone the Moroccan RSPCA..."

During a trip in Asia I had a number of interesting moments where locals got a little confused with the intricacies of the English language. On one occasion in Saigon I enquired about the cost of a local companies tour to the Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi and had the following conversation,

Scottish Backpacker: "How much is the tunnels tour?"
Helpful Vietnamese Lady: "Three & a half dollars"
Scottish Backpacker: "Three dollars fifty? Good price!"
Helpful Vietnamese Lady: "No No! Three & a HALF dollars!"

Then a couple of months later I found myself wandering around Tiananmen Square in Beijing trying to avoid the touts selling the obligaory Chairman Mao nick-nacks when a zealous salesman came at me with his pitch,

Chinese Salesman: "Hallo hallo, you wan' Mao book, only one dollar!"
Scottish Backpacker:"No, thanks."
Chinese Salesman: "Ok Ok, two dollar?"
Scottish Backpacker:"No thanks (continuing to walk away)"
Chinese Salesman: "Threeeeee dollarrr.......???"

It has to be said that the communist countries of Vietnam and China have the most determined salespeople in the world. And a mutual lack of understanding in the language department won't deter them from a sale. The Chinese, god bless their wee socks, are much like the English when it comes to speaking to foreigners. If someone doesn't understand them when they talk in Mandarin, they simply talk louder and slower. But of course it doesn't matter how slowly they say "Maa shii tsu chir soo der," you still have a face that personifies confusion. On the subject of China, is it possible that millions of people don't see the irony in paying for a Big Mac and Coke using a note bearing the head of Chairman Mao?

Anyhow, even in countries where English is a main language, things can still be a little misunderstood. On a bus in Singapore, I was sat behind a young guy who had a four skin on his head... Of course I'm talking about his baseball cap, proudly made by the "four skin" company. Also in Singapore, the Chinese influence must surely make the English speakers chuckle when they are dining at places such as the "YuKee food house" or the "Foo Ken Thong cafe." Both genuine businesses I assure you. Even in countries which are predominately English speaking, there are still difficulties in being understood. A fine example being in my current place of employment in the Scottish highlands. Earlier in the year I was working with a guy from Brisbane who struggled with one of the local accents so badly that I had to translate for him. One story that was told to him was about a drunken assault that had taken place, but of course he had no idea that a "clout in the puss" meant to be hit in the face. It was just another example of the global English language that makes life a little more colourful.

Posted by scotsman 10:29 Comments (2)

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