When I was a mere glint in America’s eye, our French teacher told the likes of The Beancounter, Broadsheet Benny and I that we would only be fluent in the language when we thought in French. As it was, most of us couldn’t tell our derrieres from our coudes, let alone ponder the existential meaning of life in the tongue of our Gallic cousins. And besides, why would we think in French when it would leave less room for us to consider the important matters of the day, such as Ghostbusters, Panini stickers, the FA Cup draw, and how to snowball teachers and still get away with it?
Being no linguistic expert means that wherever I travel, I’m always translating from the local tongue into English, working out what I need to say, and then translating back into the relevant language. Such a laborious process can tragically turn into an internalised version of Chinese Whispers (or the markedly less impressive ‘Telephone’, as The Special One calls it), where a series of small mistranslations leads to me replying to a waiter asking if I want milk in my coffee with a suggestion that his wife did indeed look like an elephant.
But finally after nearly 35 years of trying, I think I’ve finally cracked it – I’ve mastered a foreign language to the point where I am now able to think and speak in the local tongue without translating into the English in between. Admittedly ‘American’ may be more of a dialect than a language, but you try living in a country that refuses to pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘water’ and see if you still feel the same then.
Today in a phone conversation with an American colleague, I managed to suggest (without even missing a beat) a series of non-specific options by using the phrase “we’ll need to go back to them with ‘ex’, ‘why’ and ‘zee’”. I was part way through the next sentence by the time I realised what I’d done, and had to stop myself and drop a random ‘zed’ into the conversation just to reiterate my Britishness.
Then on the way home I saw a billboard for the Home Run Derby. I have no idea what one of those is, although I suspect it involves slightly overweight men playing big boys rounders. The point is that I looked at the sign and wondered idly to myself what a ‘home run durr-bee’ was. That’s despite almost half my family having been born and raised in the East Midlands town of Derby, with its British pronunciation of ‘darr-bee’.
I can’t work out whether I’m proud or disturbed.
Ironically, the comfort with language won’t last as I’m off to France next week for a week of relaxation in the sun, and I’ll suddenly be back to struggling in a foreign tongue. Here’s hoping I can get my fair share of coffee and croissants without inadvertently reminding the waiting staff of the grey large eared mammal-esque qualities of their spouse, eh?