I have never understood foreign languages

I have always been hopeless at foreign languages. I remember sitting in my class in grade 7 as the French teacher handed back exam papers, making comments about each one.

My heart fluttered wildly when he said: “And I must make special mention of Mitchell….” for I could see not see how I could possibly be worthy of a special mention. But the teacher continued “…..for he has somehow managed to score and amazing 10% – the lowest mark I have ever given in all my years of teaching….”

Latin was no better.

And when I eventually left school and became a copy boy at one of Adelaide’s ‘other’ newspapers, I was not at all disappointed when I was told that shorthand would be a mandatory study subject. It sounded exciting. But that was before I discovered, to my horror, that even shorthand was rather like learning a foreign language.

Needless to say, I was hardly a top student although I managed to scramble to 100 words per minute – a speed that I quickly lost some years later when I stopped being a journalist.

My inability to come to grips with languages has often been the cause of embarrassing moments.

One of the worst was in former Yugoslavia many years ago when my wife, Julie, and I were on the hippy trail driving a battered old van from London to Istanbul and back.

At dusk we arrived at Rijeka, which was small and pretty. Sadly, the camping ground was rather forlorn, but it had the restaurant and we thought it was time we spoiled ourselves with a decent meal. The restaurant was upstairs and was almost full. As well as being used by travelers and backpackers, all of whom looked as poverty stricken as ourselves, it was also clearly a popular dining place for the townspeople.

There was small orchestral group comprising middle-aged men wearing tuxedos and situated in the centre of the room, and it provided a demarcation line between the locals and the campers.

Julie and I examined the menu, which was written in Yugoslavian, and selected the lowest priced dishes – which totalled about $5 – and ordered. The waiter nodded, but returned about 10 minutes later, jabbering in Yugoslavian. I listened attentively, smiling and happily nodding from time to time, although I had not understood a word.

What I had understood to be “your meal will be a few minutes” was in fact an apology by the waiter who was telling me that what we had ordered was unavailable. He had taken my smile, gesticulations and pathetic attempt at the local lingo to mean “That’s fine…. we will have whatever you bring to the table.”

After about 20 minutes, the waiter appeared carrying a large silver tray complete with domed lid, and I knew something was wrong. We both gaped as he stood before us and, with a great flourish, theatrically removed the silver lid to reveal a whole baked fish. He placed it on the table then scooted back to the kitchen before remerging with more food….rice, some vegetables, lamb kebabs and half a barbecued chicken.

The two of us stared in amazement at the feast, as did the other campers who obviously thought we were far better off financially than we really looked.

My wife whispered nervously: “This is not what we ordered. What do we do?”

To which I replied: “Eat bloody quickly.”

I ate so fast the damn food had barely touched the sides as it plummeted in indecent speed to my stomach.

When we finished, the waiter gleefully presented me with a bill for about $40. I shook my head, took his pencil, and scratched out his amount and wrote in the total for the food we had originally ordered.

He looked amazed, grabbed the pencil again, scratched out my figure and re-inserted his $40. This went on for about three minutes until the bill was totally illegible. Then we started doing our calculations on the paper tablecloth.

Our voices rose from quiet whispers to angry shouts, and people started staring at us. The band began playing louder and louder in order to drown out our voices. Locals on the dance floor started prancing around more frenetically as if they, too, felt the need to either drown out the argument or pretend nothing unusual was happening.

After about 15 minutes of arguing, the waiter strode purposefully from the room, and I knew I had won. But, sadly, he reappeared a few minutes later – accompanied by two massive soldiers carrying machine guns who unceremoniously hoisted to my feet and marched me to the camping ground’s guardhouse.

The officer-in-charge listened to both sides of the argument, nodding sympathetically. I had no idea what the waiter was saying, and he had no idea of what I was saying. Eventually, the officer, who spoke a smattering of English, demonstrated the wisdom of Solomon, raised his eyebrows and asked hopefully if I would consider paying half the bill. I did so happily.

I had an additional bonus the next morning. Because of some ancient Yugoslav law, campers who arrived after sunset and left before sunrise the next morning were not charged. So we ended up having a free camp that night!

Sometimes, however, I have spoken the local language too well!

Once in Paris I planned to surprise my wife by purchasing a blouse she had adored on an earlier visit. So prior to going to this exclusive boutique on the Champs Elysees, I practiced saying in French: “Good morning. What is the price of this blouse?”

On the said morning, I entered the shop, whipped the blouse from a rack, placed it on the counter with a flourish, and said in my most charming voice: “Bonjour! Combien coûte ce chemisier ?”

Sadly, for once in my life I got the language and accent right, and the salesgirl, believing me to be a Parisian, jabbered back at me in rapid French….It was certainly not the response I had expected prior to entering the shop. Though why I thought if I spoke in French she would reply in English still escapes me.

I started muttering in English and looked suitably confused. She smiled sweetly, and said to me in a North American drawl:

“It’s OK sir, I understand completely. I’m French Canadian and on a working holiday.”

I have never understood foreign languages

John Mitchell

Kyneton, Australia

  • Artist

Artist's Description

My heart fluttered wildly when he said: “And I must make special mention of Mitchell….” for I could see not see how I could possibly be worthy of a special mention.

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