Language barriers

11 Mar

You know who I am insanely jealous of? Bi- tri- and quadrilingual people. I know English. That’s it. Sometimes I really wish my family had passed on the languages of our ancestors, although I guess that would mean I would speak Czech and Swedish, which would probably only help me if I decided to visit Prague or Stockholm. Switzerland has four — four! — official languages, none of which are English. Most people who live there are at least bilingual and majority of them probably know French, German and English. Even though English isn’t an official language, we discovered most people spoke it and we could get around the country with only minor issues.

I don’t have much experience with language barriers, and like a typical American, it makes me uncomfortable. The only foreign country I seem to frequent is China, where I always have Stephen as a translator. Plus, I stand out as a foreigner in China, so hotel employees automatically address me in English. But in Switzerland — or any other part of Europe — I look like I could be a local. That’s when I encounter a problem Stephen and I don’t agree on.

When you check into a hotel and the clerk greets you with “Bonjour,” what is the appropriate response? “Bonjour,” or “Hello?” Stephen always says “Bonjour,” because he thinks it’s polite. I can understand that, but it’s also deceiving. The clerk then beings speaking French and the “I have no idea what you are saying” panic look washes over our faces. To avoid that, I always respond with “Hello,” so they know I want the conversation to take place in English. I guess it’s the American “You come to my country, speak English! I go to your country, speak English!” way. Stephen is very good at pretending he understands other languages. That got us in trouble at the chocolate factory.

I don’t really know how to describe the Cailler chocolate factory experience other than that it felt like the beginning of a ride at Disney or Universal, where before you get on they take you through various rooms and tell you stories and show you images to get you immersed in the theme. They had groups go through every four minutes. When it was our turn, they lead us into an elevator and then shut the door. It was relatively dark and suddenly a dramatic voice over began — in German. Why? Because for whatever reason we ignored the clear “English available upon request” sign. When we were lead into the elevator the employee said something to Stephen in French which was probably along the lines of, “I know you guys are probably American because I heard you laughing stupidly about South Park jokes, but this tour is going to be in German, are you cool with that?” And Stephen just gave a very convincing nod. And that’s how we ended up hearing the dramatic story of chocolate — from the cacao bean in Africa to the French revolution to François-Louis Cailler, entirely in German. At least they had English signs once we got through the “ride” part and were in the factory. We didn’t learn as much as we could have about the history of chocolate, but we did learn an important lesson about the negative effects of smiling and nodding when spoken to in a foreign language.

And speaking of foreign languages, my family is coming to visit tomorrow. We’re doing a whirlwind tour of London, Paris and Rome. The downside is I will likely not be able to update much over the next 10 days, but I’m sure my family gallivanting around Europe will provide for some entertaining blog material in the future.


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