Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mother Tongue

There’s a great hoohah in England and, I suppose, Britain, concerning what used to be referred to as foreigners but who are now classified as immigrants – people from strange lands – well, it’s better than calling them aliens as do the Americans. Visiting London, as I did last week, I found them easy to identify, since they were the ones speaking understandable English.

Allan Jay Lerner wrote in My Fair Lady “Why don’t the English teach their children how to speak?” and Professor Higgins had no satisfactory answer back in 1900 or so when Eliza first came on the scene. George Bernard Shaw, who created her, and thus posed the question first, would be appalled to find just how things have gone downhill in the interim.

Now I’m not referring to regional accents, which I have always thought of as being well worth preserving, but to simple coherence. In bygone days, the British Broadcasting Corporation could be relied upon to impose some sort of standard upon their presenters but from my brief exposure to their programming, not much notice is taken of it now. Particularly disturbing are the presenters of programmes for the youth (yoof) and youngsters of the nation. It does not seem much to ask that they enunciate their words and, Heaven help us, stop shouting!

This may stem from the problem of making oneself heard in the hostelries of the city. I had arranged to meet someone at a rendezvous he picked out named The Auberge, close by Waterloo station. Now, to me an Auberge is a quiet French country inn, an ideal place for a civilised chat. I arrived a little ahead of time at around six in the evening and found myself in something closely resembling a cross between Dante’s Inferno and Hogarth’s Gin Lane. Quite what pleasure any of the beer swilling customer’s were getting from the situation escaped me. Realising that it was not the place for a discussion we moved to a pub around the corner which proved to be almost as bad. The chatter around me was incomprehensible but after standing pinned up in a corner for some time, we managed to find an empty, if dirty, table on which to place our drinks (the English can stand for hours balancing their beer – a talent that they should have an Olympic category for).

At the adjoining table were two young men and I was delighted to find that I could understand them. They were, of course, Brazilian.

On my way back to my hotel, on emerging from the South Kensington tube station, I was momentarily non-plussed as to which way to go. I asked a passer-by who not only didn’t know but spoke in a language that might just as well have been Mongolian but was actually his version of his mother tongue, English.

Just then a pleasantly accented voice asked if he could be of any assistance. He gave me precise directions and, intrigued, I asked where he was from.

Baghdad,” he responded, with a smile.

Back at the hotel, I chatted with the bartender, who was from the Czech Republic.

“I’m here to learn English,” he said, quite clearly and understandably.

One of my meetings that week was with a Romanian who, in addition to speaking fluent and understandable English, could also manage French, Italian and some Greek in addition to his own tongue.

Now it is a known fact the Englishmen are not, by nature, good linguists. They are taught that to communicate with a foreigner, all you have to do is raise your voice and speak in English, since all foreigners are deaf.

But it would help if they would learn to speak English first!


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