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Lost in translation: David Whitley

Schoolboy French and pidgin Spanish will only get you so far. Sometimes learning a second language is the only way to really communicate

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By the time we arrived on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast, Rodrigo and I had struck up quite a bond. Muddling along with his virtually non-existent English and the shabby remnants of my GCSE Spanish, we discussed all the important things: football, how many brothers and sisters we had, the relative merits of different fruits — all the high-level chat you might imagine going on at a UN summit.

For me, this was a source of rather pathetic pride. As is the case with many Britons abroad, my abilities with foreign languages leave a lot to be desired. It’s a predictable tale of shame. I learned French for five years at school, and have since spent 18 years forgetting all I ever knew about French grammar.

Many of the words have stuck in my head, however, so I can shout ‘grapefruit’ and ‘swimming pool’ in French at random strangers with consummate gusto. Stringing them together in coherent sentences just about works when completing transactions, but the moment someone responds with phrases that weren’t uttered by Fifi Folle in the Tricolore textbooks, it gets grotesquely awkward.

This isn’t helped by pronunciation being my strong suit. I might know very little, but what I do know, I reel off with startling, show-offy panache. Alas, the person I’m talking to usually mistakes the smug self-satisfaction for fluency, then returns fire so fast that I’m left staring into space like I’ve just been painted by Edvard Munch.

My Spanish is at roughly the same level as my French, while I’ve managed to pick up the odd word in other languages by osmosis. For example, stomping round Cologne lost, wondering why you keep ending up at ‘Einbahnstrasse’ even though it’s not marked on any maps, is a great way of learning the German word for ‘one-way street’.

Fortunately, it’s disgracefully easy these days to get around the world using stereotypical pointing and shouting, perhaps rounded off by knowing the local word for ‘thank you’. Subsequently, the number of languages in which I can say ‘thank you’ and absolutely nothing else is now around 25. It’s ‘ke a leboha’ in Sesotho and ‘khawp jai lai lai’ in Lao, by the way.

I regularly find myself utterly disgusted at how far this lazy approach gets me, but — rightly or wrongly — English has become the global lingua franca. We might arrogantly assume it’s because people need to communicate with us, but it isn’t — they need to communicate with each other. Put a Brazilian, a Dane and an Indonesian in the same room, and you can be sure that it’s English they’ll use to try and sort things out.

This is a tremendous boon for travelling Britons in one way, but a curse in another. I always get back determined to invest in lessons for a second language, then get so indecisive over whether it should be Mandarin, Russian, German, French or Spanish that I never get round to it.

Therefore, I’m left with a disproportionate degree of pride any time I manage to plough on without resorting to English. Going a few days in Guatemala, having stilted buddy-buddy conversations with the driver, had left me with a soaring sensation of polyglot invincibility. Right until my laptop cable went missing, that is.

In a flapping panic at hotel reception, “Mi cablo di laptop!” met with predictable confusion. I was quickly reduced to begging anyone who was even vaguely bilingual to be my saviour. When no one could find the missing cable, I was hit by a feeling of helplessness. Sometimes, you do need to be able to say more than just ‘thank you’.

And, as it later turned out, there’s another handy phrase I could have done with. Anyone know how to say: “I’m sorry I messed you around for hours. It turns out my laptop cable was in my other bag” in Zulu?


Published in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)