Confessions of a tongue-twisted traveller

17:00, Aug 19 2012

Xin chao! Greetings from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Though judging by the amount of free enterprise going on in the bustling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, I’d say Vietnam’s currently about as socialist as David Shearer.

You might think that being a writer, I may be adept at picking up a foreign language, but like many Kiwis, I am a linguistic disaster in non-English-speaking countries.

I blame our education system. We weren’t encouraged to pursue foreign languages, and if we did, it was usually drearily taught French. I was tres terrible at French, dropped out, and to my eternal regret, didn’t pursue another foreign language. Not that ignorance has stopped me trying.

Luckily, the foreign traveller can buy excellent language guidebooks that have really useful phrases like ‘‘where can I obtain a pessary for my girlfriend’s thrush?’’ and ‘‘does this hotel show kindness to homosexual men?’’.

Less useful phrases like ‘‘yes’’, ‘‘no’’, and ‘‘what will that cost?’’ are at the back with ‘‘do you offer parasailing during the monsoon?’’

When visiting Portugal a few years ago, I insisted in ordering my wife her lunch in Portuguese. I managed to brilliantly place her order for roast chicken. Trouble is, she ended up with rabbit. I told her Portuguese chickens had a different bone structure to ours but she knew my guidebook Portuguese was the culprit.

Later, divorce almost ensued in a bar when my wife discovered she had forgotten her cigarette lighter. Guidebook in hand, I apparently told the waiter in Portuguese that my wife was on fire. As he headed for the fire extinguisher, I used my miming ability to theatrically re-enact lighting a cigarette. But I did it so energetically I smashed two wine glasses and a beer bottle. Funnily enough, there wasn’t much conversation, in English or Portuguese, at dinner.

Luckily my Vietnamese guidebook is every bit as good as my Portuguese one. Useful phrases like ‘‘may I pitch my tent next to your water buffalo?’’ and ‘‘I don’t wish to attend tonight’s cock fight’’ take pride of place.

Unfortunately, with Asian languages it’s not just words that are difficult for the English speaker, but intonation as well.

You may use the correct words when you ask for a hot coffee with condensed milk, but get the tone wrong and you might be telling the waitress that the opera house has faulty air conditioning.

I fell victim to the perils of intonation after attending a show in a theatre that had excellent coffee and air conditioning.

Tired and hungry, I hailed a motorbike taxi and told the driver the address of a nearby cafe. After about 10 minutes I realised we were travelling in the wrong direction. I wanted to go to the Saigon CBD and he was heading for the 49th parallel.

I knew the name of the street where the cafe was located but the tone I had used sounded like somewhere else.

Luckily, I remembered the name of a street near the cafe and must have intoned it perfectly. The driver turned around, headed furiously down the wrong side of the road, just missing a large bus and had me in the CBD in minutes. It was almost as death-defying as crossing Manners St at lunchtime.

These experiences made me reflect on the recent call by National MP Tim Groser to make te reo compulsory in schools.

He rightly argues that learning a language has many longstanding benefits, and Maori is a great place to start. Sadly, few of his colleagues have had sufficient cajones to support him.

There are many excellent reasons for Kiwi children, and adults, to learn te reo Maori. But an added bonus would be that with a second language rolling off their tongues, we would more easily learn exciting new languages.

Rather than having arguments about the usefulness of particular languages, a couple of hours a week studying a non-European language like Maori could do us all the world of good.


The Dominion Post