Chapter 11: Language

As a child I had neighbors who were deaf and dumb. They spent their holidays travelling Europe by car and made themselves understood everywhere by sign language. They even made good friends whom they revisited in following years. So if it is possible without words, how much easier it is if you can speak!

The first problem with a foreign language - and an aspect which is not taught at school - is losing one's shyness to speak. It doesn't really matter outside the classroom if it's grammatically correct, the main thing is being understood and also showing that you have a willingness to learn the language, even if your vocabulary is limited initially to please, thank you, hallo, goodbye, and the figures in order to understand the prices.

If you are fluent in one foreign language you have a big advantage over those who speak no foreign language. This advantage is not just the competence in the one language, it is the awareness of the problems of making oneself understood and the ways in which languages can differ. For instance, if you say a sentence in your own language and you are not understood by a foreigner, there is little point in repeating the same words. If you rephrase what you have said, speak more clearly and use different words, maybe you then use words that belong to the foreigner's vocab-ulary and he will understand you. Even as a Brit in the USA I had my problems: Approaching a bridge on the Intracoastal Waterway I called up the bridgekeeper to ask if he could open the bridge immediately as sometimes there is a delay, which needs to be taken into consideration when the current is carrying one towards it. He replied "Ten four". Ten four? Was he going to open or not? The skipper started to panic - he's not opening until 10:04 tomorrow morning - or did he mean ten to four this afternoon? So I called up again, explained I hadn't understood and asked if he was opening, yes or no. He repeated "Ten four". I explained to my husband that he sounded so positive I was sure he would open - and he did. In the next harbor we found someone who could explain what 10 4 means. What a lot of anxiety the simple alternative answer "Yes" could have saved!

Nobody expects you to learn all the Mediterranean languages before you go. A phrase book for each language however can be invaluable. A few words of politeness will often be very well received. So brush up that school French, or Spanish, or whatever you had, you will be glad of it at some stage. And play charades occasionally, that helps too. Once, on a course for would-be evening class teachers I had to find out as much as possible about the person sitting next to me without using any kind of language. It was amazing. Within 5 minutes I knew how long she had been married, how many children she had and what her hobbies were. And I shall never forget my husband baa-ing like a sheep and slapping his thigh at the butchers in Turkey to buy a leg of lamb! Everyone had a good laugh - but it was a nice kind of laughter, laughing together, not at anyone's expense.

In fact you will find that many people will speak English and that many weather forecasts are also transmitted in English. Nearly everywhere, somebody can be found who can translate for you, even if you have a complicated problem. And if you try a few words of their language, they will lose their shyness to dig out their school English.

Many European countries teach a foreign language at every level of school and English is very commonly the first foreign language. Others have learned English by working abroad or at sea. In areas very dependant on tourism, English is picked up very fast by those who need it for their living. In Islamic countries our experience was that the local people are very good at picking up foreign languages. Their pronunciation is excellent and their knowledge of foreign countries that they have never visited confounded us. In a guesthouse in North Cyprus our break-fast waiter was deeply engrossed in a book - it was not a thriller, but a Turkish-German dictionary!

The first place to go to every time you go ashore is the local tourist office. Here you are sure to find English brochures and maybe a town plan free of charge. There will be an English-speaking assistant and we have always found them most helpful, no matter what query we came up with.

Courtesy flagsThe prevalence of English makes us lazy and the laziness makes us unpopular. In Vilamoura, Portugal, a newspaper article about the monoglot British had been copied and hung on several noticeboards - obviously a sore point with the locals. They also dislike being addressed in Spanish, as they are proud of being a separate country. In fact they understand Spanish very well - the languages are closely related - but just by using "Obrigada" instead of "Gracias" for thank you, you acknowledge that these are different languages and that you are trying to speak it correctly but just haven't got very far yet. Once that is established as a fact, you can use the Spanish you have picked up without being offensive.

The appendix of a few words of each language is just a mere suggestion of what one could learn as a minimum in each country. Arabic and Hebrew letters are not really a relevant problem, as they are meaningless without a knowledge of the language as a whole. It can be an ad-vantage however to learn to recognize the Greek alphabet, and maybe even the Cyrillic alphabet if you are planning to go into the Black Sea, as then place names can be read and understood. Greek charts are much cheaper than Admiralty charts and it only takes a little while to decipher the island and harbor names. Further words to learn are words used in weather forecasts. This is such a limited language that weather forecasts can now successfully be translated by computers. The words are quite easily picked up listening to the forecast in the foreign language while waiting for the English forecast to follow - and even easier, if the English forecast came first! It pays to learn - some day you'll switch on the VHF too late for the English! One other point which is not quite a matter of language is the courtesy flags. Do hoist courtesy flags in every country. No-one will mind if they are home made, but they should be correct and not too small - and not too frayed!

And finally there is the famous difference between American and British English. As most Europeans learn British English, you will be faced with "berth" for "slip", "slip" for "railway", buoys pronounced as boys, "paraffin" for "kerosene", "petrol" for "gas", "gas" for - what do you call it? LPG? : As G.B. Shaw said, "We are two nations divided by a common language"! You will probably have found some British terms in this book, although I have tried to use Americanisms and American spelling as far as I know it, but I am not fluent in American English!
© Dianne Reichart 1997

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