Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lingua No Franca


I keep coming back to the subject of language. Especially French!

A lingua franca is any language widely used as a means of communication among speakers of other languages. For example, English is the native language of England, but is used as a vehicular language, or lingua franca, in India. French, a Romance language, (as Romanic, not Romantic), was considered the lingua franca of diplomacy. It is not the lingua franca of The Equestrian Vagabond.

I never had to learn another language in school when I was growing up, so I've never developed that skill, or the ear. I learned to read when I was 4 or 5, and my parents spoke German, but they never saw the need to teach me. (Or wait – maybe they DID teach me, and I forgot it, and never had the knack for learning languages back then either!)

Now, Spanish has to be one of the easiest languages to learn, and seeing as I grew up in South Texas and worked for 10 years on racetracks in the U.S. where primarily Mexicans work, you'd think I'd have picked that up. Nope. I've tried, again and again, to learn Spanish, but I only get to a same certain point, and never get any further. And the little Spanish that I DO know and try to use, fools people into thinking I can actually speak it, so they'll start a conversation (or just a sentence), none of which I can follow other than picking up a word or two. Furthermore, several French people have told me, “If you know Spanish, then you know French, because the two are similar.” I beg to differ!

It can be a bit hard travelling around, when you don't speak the local language. Hard on me not understanding anything, hard on the people who continuously have to translate things to English for me. I had dinner with 2 French photographers, one who spoke about 5 words of English (about the same number as my French words), and the other who could speak a little English. But it was very hard for him, because in his head he had first to translate the French words to Spanish, then think them out in English. Very tedious for him!

Even when people are terrically friendly and kind, you can feel isolated. It's very easy to imagine how an immigrant to a foreign country feels, surrounded by people he can't understand, words he can't read, unfamiliar customs, and no one to explain them. Even with someone translating, miscommunications easily happen. It's easy to feel a bit dense, when you're the only one who can only speak English, and people around you are flipping easily between 3 languages. And really, nothing makes you feel smaller than a little green pea in a grapefruit field, when 2 little girls, ages 4 and 5, not only speak French and German, but understand ME when I talk to them in English.

Now let's talk English accents: American (and then there's the Deep South accent, the Brooklyn accent, etc), British, Australian, New Zealand, Scottish, Irish. Heck, sometimes I had a hard time understanding some deep New Zealand accents, and many years ago in Scotland I could hardly understand a Scottish guy I was hiking with. “Hoi, m'nm'sPot,” meant, “Hi, my name is Pat.” And, let's talk about the Irish – some of my favorite people on the planet! I worked briefly in an Irish stable, and the head lad's accent was so thick, I could not understand a word of what I assume was English. I got tired of saying, “What? What?” and I finally started saying, “Uh huh,” although I didn't understand anything at all, at which he probably thought I was daft because God knows what I agreed to. So, imagine a native French speaker trying to understand the myriad different English accents. Yikes!

When someone can't speak your language, or can't pronounce words in your language, the best thing to do, and the most fun, is to laugh at them and make fun of them. If you can't laugh at other people, who can you laugh at?

French-speaking Belgian Leonard tried yesterday to say, “hawk.” It was coming out as Hoke, Howk, Hook, Hock – he couldn't get the aw sound. I laughed at him. “This English!” he spluttered, “it's such an uncivilized language! Hoook. Hoock. Hawooke. Hoke.”

“Hoke is okay, it's how the British say it.”

French is my special nemesis. Nothing clicks at all. Don't know how to pronounce it, don't understand vocalization, nothing. Blank page there. Some people appear to take offense that I have not learned their French language, and they appear to be a bit incensed when I massacre the pronunciation of their words. Anything French with an “L” or an “R” in it – forget it. Feel free to laugh at me making a shambles of French, because if you can't laugh at me, who can you laugh at? You might as well get some entertainment out of it. I certainly do, because it's hopeless!

If you think about it, it's got to be the same language difference between horses and humans. Most riding horses can probably speak many different languages or dialects, because we humans all ride a little differently (except perhaps for those highly talented and trained riders). We all sit a little differently, use our hands and weight and seat and legs a little differently, and each horse has to figure out what it is we are trying to say; we must learn to communicate. Horses are, in fact, amazingly adaptable to be able to adjust to different humans. That horse that you just don't get on with, 'can't get him to do anything right!', you are just speaking a language he does not understand. Like me and dressage. Like me and French.

Instead of fighting it, trying to learn a whole new language I don't understand, maybe I'll just learn the 7 most important words in the languages of the countries I visit: yes, no, please, thank you, hello, goodbye, and Horse. Or, learn a random phrase in each language: “I would like a fan,” in Spanish, or, “How ya doin, lover?” in Arabic.

And just stick to riding horses I can communicate with.

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