Say WHAT? On the Road with Foot in Mouth

New Year’s Resolution: Improve Your Foreign Language Skills–But Beware Those Slips of the Tongue.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that your pig is fat. It's just ugly.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that your pig is fat. It’s just ugly.

As a traveller with a love of foreign lands, I’ve often wished for a Babel fish.

This ingenious invention, proposed by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, would enable anyone to understand anything being said around them, no matter what the language.

While I’m waiting for reality to catch up with Adams’ imagination, I’ve turned to Duolingo. Named Apple’s App of the Year in December 2013, this free tool offers instruction in French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese and English.

With cartoon-like graphics and cheerful trumpets rewarding every minor triumph, it exudes all the fanfare of a video game, albeit with considerably less violence than most…unless you count the broken hearts that crumble when you fail a lesson.

I signed up for Duolingo’s French tutorial in early January, and so far, très bien. I don’t expect to find myself waxing poetic, Parisian-style, over the collected works of Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert anytime soon. But I do think that when travelling in another country, it’s only polite to learn the most basic phrases.

Fortunately, some signs, like this one in Thailand, need no translation.

Fortunately, some signs, like this one in Thailand, need no translation.

“Hello,” “thank you,” “good-bye,” and “another beer, please” (which quickly necessitates the question, “Where is the bathroom?”) will go a long way, baby. And no, speaking English loudly and slowly doesn’t count.

If you happen to be in a country where most tourists don’t bother with even the most rudimentary words, attempting just a few syllables of the local lingo may win you a friend for life. I learned about five words of Croatian when I visited last spring, and I’m still receiving enthusiastic e-mails from some of the lovely folks I met there, inviting me back and sending me “sweet kisses.”

Of course, your efforts at grammatical goodwill may occasionally backfire.

I was once going through airport security in Prague, where I greeted the stern-faced, rubber-gloved official manning the metal detector with a friendly “Dobrý den!” (“Hello.”)

A handy French phrase for fending off unwanted advances.

A handy French phrase for fending off unwanted advances.

At least, I THOUGHT that’s what I said, but considering the guard’s unsmiling reply, I might have, in fact, implied that he was descended from an unholy coupling between his beloved mother and a goat.

As he continued to question me (in Czech), I tried to explain (in English) that I had just exhausted my trusty supply of tour book phrases, as asking for “another beer please” didn’t seem appropriate in this situation.

For my troubles, I was rewarded with a thorough “security check” and nearly missed my flight. There were one or two international gestures I could have summoned in reply, but it’s probably for the best that my hands were too full to allow me to indulge that particular impulse.

Invariably, however, I’ve found myself in the most danger of committing a philological faux-pas when in France. This is because I spent years learning (i.e. bludgeoning) this beautiful language, first in high school and then at university, and have long laboured under the mistaken impression that I have some idea what I’m saying.

Once, as an 18-year-old in New Orleans, I overheard a Parisian couple chatting in a shop and boldly engaged them in conversation. When they asked me if I was Swiss, I was positively elated. Only later did I learn what Parisians think of Swiss French. (Suffice it to say, this was probably NOT a compliment).

In case you were wondering what the waiter said when you tried to order two mains.

As proof of how my language skills have deteriorated, I recently endured the humiliation of reading a children’s book to a French friend’s 7-year-old daughter.

The child’s English was already far better than my French, and she regarded me with a mixture of pity and dismay as I attempted to translate the pamphlet-thin illustrated adventures of Hans Christian Andersen’s little Eliza.

Fortunately, the book had a happy ending, and I don’t just mean for Eliza. I nearly wept with relief when it was over.

I’m even worse when it comes to conversing with adults. A few years ago, I was travelling around the French countryside with a driver named Bernard who spoke very little English, but I eagerly soaked up every word as best I could as he regaled me with tales in his native tongue.

One day, Bernard told me with great pride about his father, who had helped escort World War II Allied troops to safety in occupied France. “He must have been full of valor,” I respectfully replied.

Whey, then, did Bernard turn to look at me with the wounded eyes of a puppy? Well, as it transpires, the word “valeur” is very close to “voleur,” which means robber. I had essentially just called his heroic father a thief.

"Lonely men drink." Yes, Duolingo, that's what I hear.

“Lonely men drink.” Yes, Duolingo, that’s what I hear.

On that same trip (as on every trip, actually), I found myself regularly bellying up to various local bars, chatting with the bartenders. “Je voudrais du vin,” I’d say, ordering a glass of wine.

“Parlez-vous francais?” they would usually reply as they poured. “J’essaie de pratiquer la langue,” I’d tell them. “I’m trying to practice the language.” Only “langue,” someone finally explained to me…on the very last day of my tour…doesn’t mean “language.” It means tongue.

I had essentially been propositioning every bartender I met across central France, telling them I wanted to practice my tongue. No wonder they were all so friendly. Although, in retrospect, I’m a bit insulted that none of them offered me a free drink.

So, lest I accidentally start a world war (or an affair) with an ill-chosen word on my next visit, I’ve turned to Duolingo.

It works by suggesting what it considers useful phrases, asking me to translate them from English to French or vice-versa.

In fact, he's almost as ugly as your pig.

In fact, he’s almost as ugly as your pig.

What invaluable nuggets has this app taught me so far? How about this little gem: “Ton cochon es laid.” “Your pig is ugly.” Handy if you’re visiting a barnyard and want to insult the farmer.

Also “L’homme est nu.” “The man is naked.” Okay, so that could potentially be useful, especially given my penchant for making inadvertently lewd remarks.

Then there’s the “udderly” unforgettable “C’est ma premiere vache.” “It’s my first cow.” I can only hope the judge will take this into account and advise leniency when I’m hauled into court, accused of crimes against nature.

Finally, let’s not forget the classic “Je suis facile.” “I am easy.”

Really, Duolingo? I guess that’s what I get for trying to “pratiquer la langue.”

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