Never Too Late!

Never Too Late!
any resemblance to anyone real or imaginary is mere bad luck
we are all lying in the gutter, but some of us are trying to get up

26.2.09

Those questions I hate

"Where are you from?" is the first and obvious one, especially from that type of viciously simple-minded people who absolutely insist that you must be from somewhere, really. I have always had a difficult time understanding what that actually means.

"Language is the only homeland," Czeslaw Milosz would have it. I do really quite like that, it's very neat indeed, and dispenses with the first question, but brings me to the second: "How many languages do you speak?" Yes, I receive ever so many complements on this or that every day, and many people ask me this often, but the question is no simpler, as I'm unsure what it actually means either.

If it means speaking in such a way that everyone takes you for a native of whatever country you happen to be in, I don't actually speak any languages. This is another reason I hate the first question. In England (I was born there and I have a British passport), with its multitude of accents tying you to your social class and place of birth within 10 miles, it is especially bad. "Well you don't sound English... What's the accent then?" Bastards. If there seems to be a particularly ignorant nationalism driving the question, I tell them it's because I grew up overseas where my parents were in the service of the Crown, which is not true but shuts them up. Likewise in Finland. I don't really like Finland, but I love the language. I would imagine no foreigner from a different linguistic background ever quite got their head around the utterly bizarre and unique structures available in the Finnish language to the extent that I do, but still after a few minutes of conversation I get puzzled looks and a "So... where exactly are you from?" [You can put together words to create or suggest new words, hence tietokone = knowledgemachine = computer, hence my favourite word ever aivotärähdys = brainquake = concussion.]

By my own definition, you speak a language once you have been able to conduct a meaningful relationship, a friendship, maybe an enmity, entirely in that language. This allows me to lay claim to vast swathes of the globe, including all of the Americas, except for the pockets of indigenous or eskimo languages of course, and except for Quebec (je refuse de parler français!); and also most of the Indian sub-continent (although it's been a while and every time I learn a new language, one of the old ones is forgotten, or not forgotten, but it goes in the fridge, and it can take a good while to warm up again once the time comes). So this brings the count up to either five, or six, depending on how you see the relationship between Urdu and Hindi. Largely they are the same language, in that on an every day level they are perfectly mutually comprehensible, so that people speak of (or used to at least) Hindustani instead, and it is only once you get to the literary (and religio-philosophic) language that one starts drawing heavily on Persian and Arabic, and the other on Sanskrit (and different alphabets, of course). So often enough we would be chatting along just fine, somewhere in the Hindi belt in India, and then a few minutes into the conversation they would suddenly go: "What did you just say?" And I would repeat it, and they would look at me sort of triumphantly and say: "Urdu!"

Many English speakers, however, find learning another language such an incomprehensibly impossible task, that with their total ignorance of how much effort people put to speak to them in their own language, they arrive home from six months of "doing" South America or India or wherever, and think they've "picked up" Spanish or Hindi because they can buy drugs or give directions to a taxi driver. By this definition, I can extend my dominions considerably further, to encompass Persia and greater Khorasan (Afghanistan and Tajikistan), Turkey and most of Central Asia, Scandinavia (Finland is not Scandinavia...), oh it goes on, and I am making inroads on Russia.

"What do you do?" is the third one. Like the others, a perfectly innocent question - you have to talk about something after you've just met, after all, that is not like overly heavy. Years ago I took to answering "writer", because it is beautiful and just right and ambiguous enough to mean many things. Some horrible and insistent people pursue that with questions about, you know, selling writing, and where do you publish and who do you write for. They want to know what you do in the time you sell to others, a job it's called. Me, I'm moving into English teaching. Dynamic industry. I have no formal qualifications whatsoever, but I do have a lot practical experience in the field of learning to speak.

Oh the wonder of being in a new country surrounded by a new language. Everything becomes interesting. You can watch awful daytime TV, you can go out for a drink alone and end up talking with the most depressing babbling old alcoholic, it all suddenly feels educational and entertaining.

5 comments:

Indigobusiness said...

It's always been what people manage to stop themselves from doing that truly defines and explains them, anyway.

So... what exactly don't you do?

(S)wine said...

I shamelessly steal from Bukowski:
--What do you do?
--Nothing. I drink. Both.

The end.

DAVE BONES said...

Nice to see you blogging again. All striving is pointless but blogging is pointless too so things are in cosmic synchronicity.

Indigobusiness said...

By the way, I saw you in London awhile back and tried to say hello, but you outran me.

I.:.S.:. said...

Well spotted, but keep quiet about that one, no one's meant to know I'm a part-time riot cop.