In 2002 I travelled to Europe for choir concerts in England and a hosted bus tour of the western mainland. Several language-related incidents remain in my mind. (I was generally interested in language(s) then, but this was before I studied linguistics formally.) The concerts themselves were a mix of languages, with Russian (possibly older-style) for Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil and Germanic Latin and older-style German for Mahler’s Symphony No 8.
We stopped for an hour in Bangkok. In the transit lounge one announcement was ‘Flight xxx to London Heathrow is now ready for boarding. If you are transferring from the Hong Kong flight or if you are having young children, please board now.’
In the UK, we were based in Birmingham, which is famous for its accent and dialect. There were several buses which passed near to where I was staying. As I got on one, I asked the driver ‘Does this bus go to Sir Harry’s Avenue?’. He said ‘Huh?’. I said ‘Does this bus go to Sir – Harry’s – Avenue?’. He said ‘Huh?’. I pointed at the map. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Suh Urry’s Uhvenoo!’. I was tempted to say ‘No. Sir – Harry’s – Avenue’, but I didn’t. (Checking just then on Google Maps, I see that it’s actually ‘Sir Harry’s Road’.)
I travelled to /Cardiff for a day. As the train approached the station, I saw from the window ‘SIOP RYGBI’. I found my way to the shop and took a photo with a Wallabies (Australia’s national rugby union team) jumper in the window. Also at the station I saw the sign ‘TACSI’. I’m sure there’s more to Welsh than just re-spelling English words. (I have sung in Welsh. My second performance with a chamber choir I was in for almost 10 years was a St David’s Day concert organised by the head of the delegation of the European Union in Australia (in effect, ambassador), who was a Welshman. We learned several items in Welsh, including Mae hen wlad fy nhadau as the encore. Afterwards the Welshman bounded up to our conductor and said ‘Your Welsh was so good I could almost understand you!’
I joined a hosted bus tour of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. Our tour guide was a French woman, who spoke English very well, but not fluently. She also spoke Italian to the bus driver, who was an Italian man. He spoke some French but her Italian was better. Our tour booklet included pleasantries in the languages we were going to. On the first night in Brussels, I was pleasant to the restaurant staff in basic French, hoping like crazy they weren’t actually Flemish speakers.
I memorised the Dutch word for thank you, and at the hotel in Amsterdam after buying a beer with my meal I said ‘Dank u wel’. He stared at me, and I thought ‘Either I’ve pronounced that so badly that he doesn’t understand what I’ve said, or he’s astonished that any tourist would bother’. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but we had quite a conversation (in English!) about comparative linguistics.
I went on a night tour of Amsterdam, which was pretty drab in the rain. The tour guide spoke excellent English, with only a few hints of non-nativeness. But he managed to fool one person in the group, who asked him ‘How long have you been living here?’. He said, puzzled, ‘All my life’. The person said ‘Oh, you’re not English?’. He said ‘No’. This compares to the tour guide in Paris, who, along with a strong accent, said things like ‘The building on your left is coming from the 18th century’.
In Germany we stopped at a roadhouse and I used the facilities. Just outside was an attendant; users are expected to leave a Euro or two for the upkeep of the facilities. As I put a Euro or two in the dish, I said ‘Danke schön’. She replied in full-blown German. I thought ‘Hmm, either I can smile and keep walking, or can say “Sorry, I don’t speak German”’, which I did, and she said ‘Ooo, your pronunciation is so good I think you speak German’. I had just sung Mahler’s Symphony No 8 for a major music festival in the UK. While the words ‘danke schön’ are not in the text of the symphony, there’s a lot of other German, and we had had it drilled into us by the Sydney choir’s German coach, who is apparently notorious within choral circles for her meticulousness. The host choir’s German coach was apparently terrified of her. (After I got home I told the choir coordinator this story, and she said that with her training in opera, her Italian pronunciation is so good that she is often assumed to be able to speak it (which she can’t).)
I saw a card with four words in German. I could recognise ‘Engel’ and ‘Mütter’ but not the other words. I know two women named Engel, and one of them had just had a baby, so I bought the card and hoped for the best. When I returned to work, I asked a German woman, who translated it as ‘Mothers are angels in training’, which I thought was appropriate, so I sent it the women who’d just had a baby, who highly appreciated it. (I can’t find the sentence in German on the internet, but Google Translate offers ‘Mütter sind die Engel in der Ausbildung’, which is certainly not the sentence on the card. The English sentence exists on the internet, as does ‘Mothers are angels in disguise’.)
My French certainly isn’t good enough to fool anyone into thinking I speak it, but I managed to order a cup of coffee and metro ticket (not at the same time!). By and large everyone in tourist-serving positions in western Europe speaks at least basic English. (One of my sisters said that when she says any pleasantry in French they say ‘You must be from Australia’. When she asks how they know that, they say ‘English people don’t bother speaking French’ (or maybe don’t bother being polite (to French people)!).
Despite all the informal reading I’ve done on language(s) and formal study in linguistics, I’ve never actually studied another language. I can manage pleasantries in a variety of languages, and can string together actual if short sentences in Korean. I would trade a large portion of my knowledge of language(s) and linguistics to actually be able to speak one other than English.