Re: Languages

From: bethexton_at_...
Date: Tue, 30 Jan 2001 15:01:36 -0000

Good lord, that is in fact exactly how it normally goes in a foreign language.

Personal example. At various periods in my life I've had to speak a fair bit of french. One of those periods was not during university, so when I subsequently went back-packing around europe my french was a bit rusty.

Still, I had no trouble getting along in France, and in general it stood me in good stead while visiting northern Morocco. In fact I was the designated translator for a couple of Australians that I was travelling with at the time. I had gotten through towns, past hordes of buskers and salesmen, onto buses, into a hotel, and was generally feeling pretty confident in my translating ability.

All was going well until one evening, sitting on the roof of a small hotel in a town up in the mountains. Earlier that day the australians, with my help translating, had naturally found the one place in town where they could buy beer. We were sitting up there with have a dozen locals, who had brought their own intoxicants (which grew in great profusion in that area). A certain degree of swapping of substances went on, and everyone was feeling mellow. Well, I was a little tense because I had to translate for everyone, but it had been going fine up until then.

Then one of the Australians said to me "Ask them if it is true that in Arab countries you only ever touch people with your right hand because traditionally the left hand was used to wipe your arse."

I objected, but eventually they convinced me to ask.

I don't know if I translated poorly, or exactly what, but suddenly there would people standing up and speaking loudly, demanding to know what I was trying to imply about them! I tried to clarify, but that seemed to only bring people closer.

Having suffered a major failure I announced that I was too blurry to speak clearly anymore, and fled to the shelter of my room. Apparently the rest settled down and continued to pass an enjoyable evening, even if none of them could talk to each other.

This is maybe a somewhat silly example, but I think it is pretty typical of what happens when you use a second language to talk about things that you are not used to talking about. You use the slightly wrong word, or verb tense, or modifier, or idiom, and you may not even realize it. If you add in cultural differences on top of that, the mix can get dangerous!


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