Hardly anyone in Britain learns a foreign language these days apart from us glorious Welsh, and all we learn is English.
There are dialectically objective reasons for this:
- All the foreign types your average Englishman meets either speak English or are eager to learn - Club 18-30/Saga/timeshare reps, Brazilian pre-opp transsexuals, Spanish policemen, Greek scam artists, Romanian au pairs/aspirant second wives, Polish barmaids, amusing gîte owners, Amsterdam dominatrices: they all speak commercial English.
- The main foreign language on offer in British schools is French, which is almost unpronounceable and spoken by unsavoury sorts - recalcitrant gîte owners, Belgian paedophiles, the Tontons Macoutes, advanced film-makers and the French.
- The only other languages on offer are either even harder (German and Russian), spoken by sinister thugs (German and Russian again) or just primary-school French with a dash of back vowels (Spanish and Italian).
- British people who already speak a foreign language are pretty suspect - teachers, bankers, North Londoners with children called Inigo and Suki at the hotel table next to you, theatrical types, terrorists and the late Edward Heath.
Rash Papist Tony Blair tried to change this by introducing yet more French, this time at tot level, but could find no teachers willing to sit in a roomful of infants going "ronrone".
English liberals, with their connoisseur's eye for the next big tyranny, seek out schools ("private, but what are we expected to do?") or at least nannies that offer Chinese. Conservatives shore fragments against our ruins.They trouble themselves for naught. I'm a border-hopping polyglot who's bathed in the penicillin of cross-cultural congress on several continents, at least one of which I discovered by myself. As such I can cite testimony to the effect that a gentleman traveller needs no more than three phrases to get by in any given language.
My neighbour in Tashkent was a retired KGB officer who had moved into property development - mainly that of political prisoners, from what I could see. Over arack and Bulgarian cigarettes one evening I asked him how to go about learning his native Uzbek - a tricky tongue that 18th century Turkish nomads developed to help speed purloined Persians through their eunuch training courses."Throw away your text books, son," he drawled. "This is all you need - indeed, all you can get away with - in the knife-happy defile that is Uzbek society. When you meet someone, say 'assalamu aleikum' before they do. They'll like that. When they ask you how you are - 'yaxshimisiz?' - say 'juda yaxshi, rahmat' - very well, thank you'. They may ask how your family is - 'uydaghilar tinchmi?' - they are also 'juda yaxshi' whether they exist or not as far as we are concerned. 'Man Angliadan' - 'I am from England' - will clear up any other conversation. Attempts at asking Uzbeks anything else could get you thrown from a minaret in a sack full of cats. Cheers!"
He was right. I spent three years as the lion of the pilau-circuit due to my wondrous ability to say my spectral wife and kids were from England and doing ok, thanks.At the time I recalled that my fellow-student in Soviet Moscow, "Tubby" Roberts, had got through an entire year of perestroika mania with the following Cockney-accented phrases:
- Privet - hello.
- Yeshcho raz - same again.
- Izvini, ya ochen zanyat. Zakhodi poslezavtra - Sorry, I'm very busy. Drop round day after tomorrow.
Since this epiphany I have collected language manuals published in the British Empire prior to 1947, and found that they are all based on this principle.
A valuable resource is the back catalogue of Mssrs Routledge & Kegan Paul. Its current language series is a dreary sheaf of shopping inquiries and verb tables, but once it gloried in such works as "Colloquial Arabic" by De Lacy O'Leary, in which donkey-wrangling plays a major part.
Other classics in the series include Elwell-Sutton's guide to buying a beer in Esfahan and addressing the Crown Prince of Persia, and a book on Hungarian by Ugric loon Arthur H Whitney that dealt largely with cheating army officers at the card table. Excellent.
The pride of my collection is "The Modern Pushtu Instructor" (1938), which taught Army of India officers how to supervise the Pathans as they went about their business of molesting unbelievers and kidnapping the wives of Peshawari barbers. It illustrated the regular conjugation with the verb "to beat". I find introductions to Afghans are always eased by my sole phrase - "Hindu halakano wahalay day" ("The boys beat the Hindu").
Experience suggests that some parts of the world need only one or two words, repeated firmly, to make a Briton feel at home. "Yalla, yalla!" will do in the Near East, "Bas, bacche" produces striking results for Inner Asia, and "jiggy jiggy" gets you a hotel room from Bangkok to Mindanao.The key is to seek out likeminded people. Dads make themselves understood wherever they go, and Guardian-readers can source a salad in the most carnivorous of climes.
Among souls with a deep spiritual bond, words are simply superfluous. As I recently related to MC Ward, a friend was once hired to interpret for a group of Kyrgyz policemen. The Home Office had invited them to Britain to learn the ways of civilised law-enforcement, and decided that the force best equippped to do the job was the West Midlands Police.My friend had little to do, as the coppers found their common interest in kicking witnesses downstairs then shoving their heads into toilet bowls broke through the language barrier - that and so much more.
And now, if you'll excuse me, ya ochen zanyat. Zakhodi poslezavtra.