How to Survive When You Only Speak One Language…
I was twenty years-old and excited at the prospect of studying French for an entire summer in the south of France. Until I met my teacher. “Mademoiselle La Blonde”, said she, “you speak French like a vulgarian”.
“Repeat after me”, she ordered. “Mardi. No, not like that! Mardi! Encore – Mardi!” Over and over my Quebec accent infuriated her. Finally, I could stand it no longer:
“Tuesday”, I shouted. My classmates laughed.
And that is when the epiphany came. I had no aptitude for learning foreign languages – absolutely none. Nada. Rien. And I had just wasted fourteen years of my life trying to cram French into my head only to be labelled a vulgarian. I was stung. Why had my Canadian French teachers sent me out into the world to be attacked and ridiculed? In hindsight, it’s obvious that my summer school teacher must have been jilted by a lover from Montreal — but she was right. My French was horrible.
Never one to squander my resources or throw good money after bad, I decided to change my approach. Why bother studying languages that I would never master? What was the point in being able to ask a question if I couldn’t understand the answer? Why did I want to be distracted by conversations taking place at restaurant tables around me or know when I was being insulted? When I heard a friend being told by a Parisian store clerk that his shop didn’t sell clothes for “les elephants”, I was convinced. Much better if I remained unilingual.
I admit that speaking only one language can be a challenge, especially in Asia. One must become hyper-observant. To get home from work when I lived in Tokyo, I had to look for the train with the upside down hat over the one-legged stickman. Once it cost me huge taxi fare when I accidentally got on the train with the two-legged stickman — but generally, my technique worked fine.
There are also times when confusion arises. When I first took up jogging in the Philippines many years ago, I was surprised to find people waving at me and calling out “asshole”. Well, that’s not very nice, I thought. Again and again old ladies and young children called me an asshole as I passed their huts on jungle trails. Maybe jogging is tabu in the Philippines, I speculated. Only later did I realize they were referring to my dog who was my running companion. Dog in Tagalog is “aso”.
Now I am not recommending that anyone else follow my example. If you can, learn as many languages as possible. But if there is someone out there who is as linguistically challenged as I am — it IS possible to survive with English only.
Dangerous animal-crossing signs are often written in English, enabling us to avoid being fatally trampled while going about our daily business. Fortunately, the word ATM is universally recognized, as is the gesture of raising one’s index finger and pointing it at an empty glass. As long as you have money and drink, what more do you need?