November 4, 2013

The most helpful languages

WHAT FOREIGN LANGUAGES are most useful to yacht crews  planning to go world cruising?  English, of course, is the recognized language of the sea, but not everybody on land speaks English, and you have to make contact with those people sooner or later or you’ll never be able to buy provisions and beer.

For those plying the traditional trade-wind routes around the world, I guess that French and Spanish are the most useful.  If you want to get off the beaten track and explore the Amazon or the Yangtze Kiang, then Portuguese suggests itself, along with Mandarin, the most spoken language on earth.

That having been said, the great majority of native English speakers seem to believe that English alone will serve them in any civilized country.  They are also notoriously lax about learning other people’s languages.

This subject came up recently on a bulletin board run by the British magazine Yachting Monthly. Here are some comments from posters on their Scuttlebutt thread:

“I was very impressed with the language skills of the French when I visited their country - even little children of five or six years old can speak French much better than I can.”

“I have spent my 40 years seafaring and shore-based marine life studying languages.
I can say ‘Two beers please, my friend’s paying’ in numerous languages.”
“I have some ancestors from way back who conquered 75% of the known world just so that I do not need a foreign language, & just a little more recently my father & grandfather went to war to save me having to learn German.
“Thanks to them all, English is the second most widely spoken language, Mandarin being the first.
If I have a problem with the odd ignorant foreigner I just shout louder in English.
“Does not always work but suits me just fine.”

“Most Greeks speak excellent English and they seem to sense that I am American even before I speak. Even at highway toll booths, the attendants instantly sense that I am American and tell me the price in English. Many times, I have gone into a store, picked out what I wanted, and taken it to the counter without speaking. The clerk always addresses me in English. I did a demonstration of this in front of one of my cousins. She was amazed and asked the clerk how he knew that I am an English speaker. The clerk responded: ‘Americans smell different.’ ”

Well, I don’t know if that’s a compliment or a complaint but as long as foreigners addressed me in English, I wouldn’t pursue the matter.

I was once anchored off the tiny island of Fernando de Noronha, 200 miles off the coast of Brazil, when the local bumboat came alongside — a small wooden boat rowed by three young boys. They offered us fish, but what we wanted most was fruit, vegetables, eggs, and beer.

We spoke no Portuguese, but they understood about everything except the eggs.  I tried one of my two words of Spanish (huevos) but they shook their heads. So I did a little pantomime of a hen flapping her wings, cackling, and laying an egg, which caused great mirth among them but seemingly created some degree of comprehension. Then I held up my fingers to show that I wanted two dozen eggs. That caused much consternation and headshaking, but after a short pow-wow they rowed off purposefully toward the beach, indicating that they would return later.

"What do you make of that?" I asked my wife June.

"Oh, I expect eggs are scarce here," she said.

"I suppose we're not likely to get two dozen, then."

"Who knows?" she said, laughing. "Anything could happen."

She was right. They came back with no eggs at all. They were proudly holding up a dead chicken.

My son Kevin could hardly contain himself. "Maybe you need acting lessons, Dad," he snorted.

"You're lucky they didn't bring two dozen live chickens," said June.

Today’s Thought

How amazing that the language of a few thousand savages living on a fog-encrusted island in the North Sea should become the language of the world.

— Norman St. John-Stevas, British M.P., NY Times 10 Jul 84


I expect my wife to be the same in 20 years as she is right now.”

“But that’s unreasonable.”

“Yeah, that’s what she is right now.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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