Thursday, December 18, 2008

Das Ist Herr Kartoffel-Tete

In most of the 16 countries we've traveled this year, we've been completely out of our element when it comes to understanding and being understood. I am constantly amazed at the diversity of language in this world; at the same time, I am even more amazed at how many people actually make the effort to speak and understand a little bit of English.

We always made an effort to learn to say "Hello" and "Thank you" in the local dialect, be it Khmer, Hindi, or Chinese. That's just basic etiquette -- in someone else's country, why should you just assume they speak English? Worse, why be annoyed if they can't speak English? We met plenty of other travelers with this mindset: "Cripes, they can't even speak ENGLISH. What is this place?" How about, it's Thailand? I heard very few travelers nattering away in the local language along the way. Most of them, actually -- and this probably includes us -- conversed in a broken, pidgin English that was usually very slow and, inexplicably, very LOUD. "Where EAT? BAR? BEER? Me. very. Hungry!" (accompanied by a belly pat.) I even heard this in countries where English was well-understood and spoken, like Namibia and Botswana, and was simultaneously embarrassed and insulted on both parts.

So "Hello" became "Namaste" in Nepal and India, "Xie-Xie" in China. We said "Sabai-dee" in Laos, and "Sawasdee-Kah" (me) and "Sawasdee-Kap" (BG) in Thailand. We didn't shake hands in most of these places, but nodded our heads in greeting, and sometimes pressed our palms together, prayer style, in greeting. In South Africa we never could get the hang of any of the 11 official languages, nor could we begin to properly mimic the clicks and tongue snaps so often involved. Most of the time, we could get away with a simple "Hello", like we did in Australia and New Zealand, thank goodness... not that it was necessarily any easier to understand the Aussie or Kiwi accents -- which, they WILL argue, are completely different from each other. You know, like Canadians and Americans.

We got off easy in Mauritius and Switzerland. BG and I are in a funny situation in both of these places, because I understand 99.9% of everything said in Creole (the Mauritian dialect) and BG's German is pretty good. In Mauritius I could interpret most conversations and relay them as necessary, but actually speaking Creole was a problem. I understand Creole -- I do not speak it unless absolutely necessary. All of my family members have excellent English, so this wasn't usually a problem. Still, one night Catherine and I had a broken dish crisis in the kitchen, and no way of cleaning it up. So I bravely headed over to the caretaker's house to ask for help. Lucky me, he was out for the evening. Lucky me, I got to speak to his eight-year-old son. Lucky me, he spoke hardly any English. Imagine asking for something to clean the floor when you can't remember the words for "Dish", "Floor", "Bucket", "Broom", or "Broken", and you can imagine the situation -- a wide-eyed blank stare from him, some crazy charades from me. After I'd retreated in humiliation, his mother came home and asked what I'd wanted. All I could do was hold up the pieces of broken porcelain in chagrin. She got the point, and I got my broom and bucket and cleaned the broken dish from the floor. Other times, like when we were lost and I had to ask for directions, were more successful. On a couple of occasions I was surprised to hear people speaking Creole and find I had no idea what they were saying. A phone call to my mother cleared that up, hilariously; she maintains that she speaks a more "refined" Creole, and that these other Mauritians were speaking a rougher dialect. Refined Creole is a complete oxymoron -- it's a mostly language with no rules or grammar, and uses few adjectives or adverbs. So, apparently, my mother's "refined Creole" is comparable to the Queen's English, and these other guys were speaking... Eubonics?

I have been completely and utterly impressed by BG's talent with German. Ever since the day he failed when attempting to read a kindergarten-level book in German, I've been convinced he couldn't speak a word of it. We roomed with eight German girls in Cape Town (all young and blonde, and you wonder why BG loved it there so much) and they spent plenty of time trying to teach BG the art of the umlaut (that two-dot thing on top of the U in Yogen Fruz.) As a result they also spent a great deal of time lauging at his attempts. I also had never heard him say more than, "Ja, das ist gute!", and the first day in Switzerland he couldn't remember the German word for Shoe (it's Shuh, pronounced Shoo.) So you can see how I was stunned when, after a few days in Switzerland, BG was nattering off to his family in Deutsch. Umlauts or no umlauts, he's pretty good! All the years he went to German schol on Saturday mornings instead of hockey games have finally paid off. Truth be told, he can only speak and understand High German, and most people here speak mostly Swiss German, a dialect very parallel to my mother's Creole -- unwritten, no rules, no grammar. But people understand him when he speaks German, and they reply in High German, so all is good.

Even my German is improving. Check out my new vocabulary, and note any patterns:

Schmutzig = Dirty
Wasser = Water
Shokolade = Chocolate
Kartoffel = Potato
Tete = Head
Kase = Cheese
Fruhstuck = Breakfast
Schwartz = Black
Apfel = Apple
Kuchen = Cake
Gemuse = Vegetables
Brot = Bread
Apfelsaft = Apple juice
Milch = Milk
Kaffee = Coffee
Himbeer = Raspberry
Zucker = Sugar
Tee = Tea
Schmuck = Jewelry
Nusstorte = Nut Cake
Hund = Dog
Katze = Cat
Bahn = Train
Bahnhof = Train station
Bahnhofstrasse = Train Station Street

It's pretty clear now that if I'm ever stranded in Deepest, Darkest Switzerland, I'll be able to eat. It's all good!


brian from said...

I wrote a blog post about the language barrier. You may encounter someone in an establishment who does not understand any English, but someone generally does.

And it is in their best interest to learn, because Western English speakers tend to have disposable income and can travel in the first place. Economic matters drive that. Huge demand for English teachers for English as a second language everywhere.

Val said...

All good points, Brian! Only in a few places were we completely unable to make ourselves understood, but it did happen. We should make more of an effort to learn. After all, we may be speaking Mandarin in a few years.

Understanding that we, as Western tourists, have the means and ability to travel means we can better understand and appreciate the places we travel to. My next blog entry actually touches on that a bit...

Mark, Jen said...

That crazy Mandarin, I tell you. I think you may have confused 'thank you' with 'hello' in your post... ;) Maybe your travels from Toronto will bring you via Denver one of these days...

Val said...

Gah! You're right, that IS "Thank you!" What was hello again?

Happy continuous travels, guys, and thanks for reading!

Val said...

It's ni-hao!