In the first of these blogs I revealed myself to be a normal Australian, bothered in a low grade way by being in situations where I can’t understand the language. You know. Just a bit of a hassle, no big deal, but if I could walk along the Thames for a fortnight and talk to everyone I met and never encounter difficulties in comprehension, maybe I’m too old blah blah blah. Why can’t they just speak English? However as we arrived back at Heathrow after seven weeks of guessing and gesturing, it was like being shoved under a huge waterfall of verbiage, not necessarily a pleasant experience.

We know that foreign language study in most Anglophone countries is in decline. The last job I did before we left was to help the Asia Education Foundation with its paper ‘Building Demand for Asia Literacy‘ [nb. unpaid advertising Kathe and Kurt] which had a long section on how growth in enrolment, and competence, in Asian languages might be encouraged. As I wrote in that paper:’Sixteen percent of the Australian population speaks a language other than English at home, making this group, like the considerable majority of the world’s population, bi- or multi-lingual. But public life and discourse in this country is resolutely monolingual. This, of course, means that there are limited opportunities for the exposure to other languages in use which is so important for developing interest, familiarity, and competence. But it also provides sustenance to members of the community who believe that learning a language other than English is unnecessary and a waste of valuable learning time.’

It is always the case that I feel embarrassed about my linguistic deficiencies. Apart from anything else, in situations where everyone else appears to speak at least several languages, it seems deeply impolite to canter along in English.

Arif, the receptionist at our hotel in Budapest I have mentioned several times, spoke Turkish from birth, learnt Magyar in three months (he says), a feat akin to splitting the atom, although he began from experience in another agglutinative language, without the handicaps of English grammar and with the enormous incentive of needing to be able to talk to a woman who later became his wife and, perhaps more to the point, her family, and now after 30 years obviously has native or near native proficiency in his adopted tongue. His English is excellent, he speaks good French, and quite enough German, Italian and Dutch to resolve sometimes complex issues at the counter. As my sister Carmyl (a language teacher herself) might cheerily say, it’d make you sick.

Did everyone speak English? No they didn’t. In the backwoods of Austria, for example, they were less inclined to do so. But a surprising number did elsewhere. The girl behind the deli counter at the supermarket in Sighetu Marmatiei did. Perfect English. She had lived in Newcastle for two years with her immigrant labourer boyfriend. And that’s one thing: the possibility of exposure to another language through moving around through different countries makes language learning a more conventional experience.

I was reminded again of the obvious. The incentive to learn a language when you are immersed in an environment full of cues, and demands, is immense. If you want kids to learn Asian languages send them to Asia for a while.

Our local guides in Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey all spoke very good English. When I asked them, and many others, how they had learnt it there were various answers but ‘at school’ figured prominently. That was encouraging. It said something desirable about the possible impact of formal education. ‘Watching TV and films’ came in second, and I think I learnt more Magyar from the films we went to see in Budapest than from any more explicitly focused efforts. I was watching it in use with immediate access to both languages, and there were shortcuts for the (limited) sorts of things I wanted to say.

And what do you want to say? Hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘very nice’ or ‘great’ were close to my limit. I threw away my Fodor’s Guide to 12 European Languages. It didn’t seem up to date and made assumptions about what sort of conversational moves you might want to make that were unsustainable. You ask ‘Where is the laundry?’, and then they tell you. Finito. You’re stuffed.

Travel guides are insistent that you should try to use the local language, but I decided that it was probably more true that you should try to communicate. I watched English-speakers, not the ones we were travelling with, look at a menu and say to a waitress who clearly spoke no English, like … none, ‘I’d like the lamb please with vegetables and a glass of red wine.’ No change in inflexion, no pointing, no miming, no effort to try sounding out the words directly in front of them, no smile, no hint of apology — and that strikes me as odd. Dysfunctional, a recipe for not getting what you want, but also ungenerous.

Why don’t they want to try? How can they miss the fun of trying to join in, miss out on all those ‘ah so that’s what it is’ moments, the pleasure of finding matches and links, like ‘periculos’ in Romanian meaning ‘danger’ just as ‘pericoloso’ does in Italian. (If you could speak Italian, or even better Latin, you would be able to accommodate a great deal of Romanian.) Or buying a very French ‘jeton’ to travel around Istanbul. Or that when we go to eat at Abla’s in Elgin St we are going to ‘older sister’s’. Or other mysteries like that well known English word ‘sache’ (pron. ‘sash’), a cast iron or clay sizzle plate from which we ate so much food in Romania and Bulgaria.  A few years ago in the hills outside Zagreb, Donny boy and Darko cooked us an octopus in a sač? (pron. ‘sash’), but its distinctive feature was a bell-shaped cast iron lid on which coals were piled (which unfortunately in the pictorial evidence is hiding in the oven).

It is hard to imagine that it isn’t part of the adventure of travel to wrestle with these small puzzles and revelations. Is it the prospect of making a mistake, or making yourself look silly that stops us trying? Is that somewhere among the reasons why most young Australians don’t want to learn another language? Probably.

Finally, it’s not just us. Another thing that mystified me was the shocking quality of English translations in formal settings like tags to art works in galleries. Hoorah that there is a translation, but why bother when such linguistic messes are produced? After a few hours in the Budapest’s National Art Gallery I was thinking that if they gave me a computer I could fix all the cards in no time. I don’t want to be more of a grumpy old man than I have to be, but in such circumstances how could you get them so wrong? Who’s doing this? Are they trying word-to-word correspondence out of a dictionary, a bad mistake with Magyar to English grammar? Do the translators get paid? Hasn’t anyone told the people in charge? Etc.

So … you know … maybe a walk along the Thames …

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