The tyranny of English

I talk, of course, of the language and not the breakfast.  I should also make clear that I love English for the ridiculous quantity of words it contains and the truly vast amount of content those far more (and far less) talented than I have created using those words.  Perhaps, most of all, I love it for the scope it gives for word-games and humour – though readers of this blog will have to take this last assertion on trust.

However, as an English speaker in the home of English, the language, its tones and cadences can come to dominate one’s aural landscape.  I do treasure an accent (and have acquired small bits of ones not my own) and, as I may have mentioned before, I’m a sucker for almost any accent from Scotland.

I don’t watch Borgen – I watched the first episode at which point everything was going swimmingly, and I couldn’t bear to see it all, inevitably, fall apart.  As a result, I had been missing any dose of Danish – or other Scandinavian tongue – until I visited Foyles over the weekend.  Foyles does seem to be magnet for those of Viking heritage and I spent a pleasant few minutes eavesdropping on conversations I couldn’t understand (lacking subtitles) but just enjoying the sound of it all.  I feel I want to join in, but fortunately have so far resisted the urge.  In a similar vein, I can usually resist the urge to listen in to conversations held in English, but hang on any word of an overhead conversation held in Spanish.

A few weeks ago I watched several French films in a relatively short span of days.  Across Heartbreaker, Populaire and In the House I fell in love with the sound of French – a language I understand a little (just enough to criticise the accuracy, and clear US-centricity, of the subtitles).  In the House, as well as being a splendid film, has the most beautiful French speaking in it – I feel it would be my first choice as a pronunciation guide if I were ever to dust off my all-too-rusty French.

Montalbano, and especially Young Montalbano, made me want to speak Italian – or better Sicilian.  I don’t speak much Italian, but can sing some thanks to Nicola Vaccai and his Metodo Practico (where I am currently tackling the mordant: please insert your own joke about dyeing/dying here).  Young Montalbano has, like Endeavour, managed that most unlikely of things: a prequel that is the equal, if not superior, of the original.  It is also a joy to see so many ancient, character actors in one show – why is this so uncommon in the UK, where both witnesses and suspects are so relatively young?

Sadly, my own language skills have declined over time.  Google Translate is very handy for a chap (or chapess) in a hurry, but means I no longer put the effort in to understand websites in the original language.  I also rarely have the chance to practise my spoken language skills as so many business meetings are conducted in English – even if it is the mother tongue of only one (or, occasionally none) of the participants but just the only one shared by all.  Even if everyone else shares the same language, meetings are often held in English so that they can practise – and I lose out as the minority wanting to speak in the local tongue.

Maybe it’s time to learn Mandarin – the tyranny of the future? – if nothing else, there should be plenty of speakers available.  However, I fear to do it justice I should have started more than 40 years ago when my brain was more plastic than it is today.  Perhaps I should just accept my linguistic limitations, and enjoy the odd foreign language movie or series when I can – supplemented with a little surreptitious eavesdropping…


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