Someone I know told me the other day that while on holiday in Spain he developed an ear infection after swimming. He was recommended to go to an English speaking doctor in the resort. When he went into his office he announced “I’m Mutt and Jeff” the doctor smiled politely and said ‘Good morning Mr Geoff.’ Presumably he thought he was a holidaying sheep farmer – Mutton Geoff. If we know that someone speaks English there is a temptation to imagine that they understand every idiom and slang expression of our ever changing language. I have known elderly foreigners with impeccable English who interlace their conversation with expressions such as ‘it’s the cat’s pyjamas’ or ‘top hole’ and the ever popular ‘bottoms up’ when sharing a drink because they learnt their English from childhood visits and the books of P G Wodehouse.
It is a generalisation but we Brits are not known for our linguistic skills. English is usually the lingua franca and we expect that other people will understand us. There are three methods of being understood by foreigners who don’t speak English, the first is to shout loudly, the second is to put in foreign words regardless of the country you are in. My grandfather who spent time in India because of the family business, spoke a little Hindi – it was the only language other than English that he spoke, so that when in France, he tried to communicate with people he would try shouting first but if that failed he would try Hindi on the grounds that both Hindi and French were foreign languages. The third method is to add an ‘o’ to English words to make then sound a bit more foreign or to make up words. I once went shopping with an old family friend who assured me he spoke Spanish. I was somewhat astonished when he confidently asked the shopkeeper for ‘un packetio of conflakios per favore’. The shopkeeper was obviously used to this because he didn’t turn a hair but handed over a packet of cereal. My mother was an intelligent and quite a well travelled woman but she always referred to the pre-Euro Spanish currency as Piasters instead of Pesetas. An old cousin had a house in Spain and when her god-children came to stay she used to ask the cook to make them gateau for tea. The cook, who unsurprisingly didn’t speak French, did her best and the children were given stew for tea every day until it was eventually discovered that she thought she was being asked to give them gato which is the Spanish word for cat. She was buying rabbit in the market every day as she was unable to find suitable cats for these strange English people.
There was a book published by a war correspondent in the 1990s called ‘Has Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?’ about his time in South East Asia. A pretty cynical title, but the thought behind it was that it was more likely to find an English speaking victim than to find a reporter who spoke the local language. However things are changing, young people today travel and hopefully have an interest in other languages I was delighted and surprised to hear a party of school children asking a policeman in the local town for directions and to hear him answering them in fluent French.