25 September 2009

Notes on language

(1) From Arthur:

The most famous last words of the American tourist are: "They speak English everywhere."

Well, they don't. You can, with luck, be stranded in a European town among people who will simply shrug their shoulders to an English-uttered request.

(2) That's still true, but if you go to pretty much any restaurant, snack bar, or souvenir shop in a tourist area, and it's a good bet that all of the employees know enough English to communicate with you. Even at, say, McDonald's (where I don't spend money but do--God bless America--use the free bathrooms). If the employees are immigrants--and as in the US, many service industry workers are from other places--then they're at least tri-lingual: native language, language of country they've moved to, English.

(3) Many panhandlers in tourist areas are also at least bilingual. Ditto street performers.

(4) In other words, nearly all tourist-area fast food employees, and a large portion of the street performers and panhandlers, know more languages than most college graduates in the US.

(5) At the EU headquarters in Brussels, we learned that there are 23 official EU languages (for 27 countries); all documents and proceedings have to be translated into each. But they do not always go straight from A to B--not a lot of people who can speak both Greek and Finnish, or Latvian and Irish. Instead, they have "relay" languages, meaning, for example, the Greek speech is translated into English, French, and Spanish, and then the Finnish translator takes it from there. This makes sense, of course, but it must lead to a fair amount of confusion and mistranslation. Every additional step gives room for more error.

(6) According to the EU, 28 percent of Europeans know two other languages in addition to their mother tongue. As a second language, English is the most-spoken, with 38 percent (of non-native European English speakers) knowing enough to carry on a conversation. Fourteen percent speak conversational German or French as a second language.

(7) English is, therefore, Europe's everyday relay language. All the European tourists talk to the European locals in English.

(8) On the train from Venice to Rome, four backpackers seated near me were passing around a little electronic translator, having a conversation in German, Italian, and English. Very slowly. But it seemed to work.

(9) American pop culture is a big resource for English learners abroad. In Denmark, I watched some basketball players--big, blond, Nordic guys. They spoke only in Danish except for the phrases "shoooot!," "three!," "FUCK!," "on fire," and, alas (and I'm not making this up), "yeeeeah, n*gga!!"

(10) It's always clear when menus and exhibit text and such have been translated using the internet, not a real person. Favorite example: at Ciro Pizza in Rome, the Caprese Salad is translated as "Capricious Salad." Don't order that.

(11) The annual European Day of Languages is tomorrow (September 26).

(12) I am in Madrid, where I kind of sort of speak the language. It's like I have water in my ears--I can discern most words, but it's all kind of garbled. Still, that's a step up from all the other places I've been in the last five-plus weeks. One problem, though, is that while my vocabulary is limited, my accent is pretty good, so after I say my initial question or greeting, everyone assumes I speak fluently. At which point they start talking at roughly 2,500 words per minute and my comprehension drops to zero.


  1. I hope that Esperanto will not be forgotten on this special day.

    Esperanto hasn't gained the recognition it deserves. However, all things considered, it has actually done amazingly well. In just over 120 years, it has managed to grow from a drawing-board project with just one speaker in one country to a complete and living natural language with around 2,000,000 speakers in over 120 countries and a rich literature and cosmopolitan culture, with little or no official backing and even bouts of persecution. It hasn't taken the world by storm - yet - but it's slowly but surely moving in that direction, with the internet giving it a significant boost in recent years.

  2. Bill, thanks for reminding me about Esperanto! I'd originally meant to include it in my notes, but completely forgot.


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