Life

I wish the world did not whirl so much around English

Other languages are musical and beautiful writes Nuala McCann. Like birdsong, they dip and soar and babble and plunge, and like music, you can fall in love with the melody and that might be enough. Perhaps we're all in danger of going tone deaf because we don't hear enough foreign words

David Cameron during a visit to a mosque in Leeds as he warned Muslim women who fail to improve their English language skills could be deported. Picture by PA

ALL NURSES and midwives coming to the UK from within the European Union will have to prove they can speak English and it’s important that sick and vulnerable people feel listened to and understood.

But David Cameron’s view that a poor grasp of English leaves Muslim women more susceptible to the lure of extremism is insulting stereotyping.

And what is it with English anyway? Sometimes I wish the world did not whirl so much around English and let other languages have a look in.

Watching the news, it is a breath of fresh air when people speaking in foreign languages get themselves heard – let’s just settle for subtitles and listen rather than deal with 'dubbed over' voices translating into the ‘mother tongue’.

Get your ear in, as my other half used to say. He usually said it when we were watching The Wire and the drug pushers’ Baltimore slang left me pushed.

“Please, please just let’s put on the subtitles,” I’d beg and he’d roll his eyes , shoot that “must try harder” look and persist as I held out for Dominic West who, at least, sounded familiar – and apologies to Stringer Bell.

But other languages are musical and beautiful. Like birdsong, they dip and soar and babble and plunge, and like music, you can fall in love with the melody and that might be enough. Perhaps we’re all in danger of going tone deaf because we don’t hear enough foreign words.

You don’t have to understand to appreciate the beauty. And a smattering of another language is enough to win a wealth of appreciation.

The time another journalist and I arrived in Warsaw, our Polish was down to hello, thank you and excuse me. We didn’t know enough to understand that we should have bought a ticket to get on the airport bus into the city, we just climbed on and offered to pay the inspector who stepped on board.

There followed a heated exchange in which he tried to relieve us of 500 zlotys each – a very hefty fine in anybody’s language – and he demanded to see our passports.

My friend handed hers over. I held mine tight in my little fist and showed him the page.

“Never, ever, give anyone your passport,” I hissed to my friend.

There followed a tussle as she tried to wrestle her passport back in a flood of Polish on his side and English on hers until we all fell out of the bus and stood on the street.

At that point, two Polish women intervened. We didn’t understand what they told said inspector but it certainly worked as did the belt one of them gave him with her big pink umbrella.

It was the international language of girl power. At the height of the row, we whispered a word of thanks in our paltry Polish and made a quick dash from the scene. Phew. At least we knew how to express appreciation.

And many times, I’ve found that a little of a language goes a long way. Just make the effort.

I have tolerated a Post Office worker in Paris teaching me proper grammar – it’s LA France – and I have the baby French for every conceivable bodily function, tick, tick, tick and if I have to faire pipi in some foreign petit coin, I have the words to locate the corner and tinkle in style.

A smattering of a language can get you a long way in a lot of faraway places.

You find a little in common – so that French helped in Romania and German helped in a sort of way in Poland and in Spain, why I can read a menu and get through without hardly a word of the local lingo – just think of a hotch potch of other languages and lump em together.

The point is that it is always worth trying.

Telly Savalas took time off sucking that lollipop to murmur sexily about a picture painting 1,000 words. But even a couple help. And communication is about so much more than mere words.

I used to share a flat with a Greek journalist, Olympia Presse. Well, that second name was a nickname as her Greek name was pretty difficult.

She had little English, so we chatted in French.

And then my sister came to stay and her French was not so hot. I had to leave for work for a few days and left the two of them together, thinking how they heck they would communicate.

But hell, they bonded. By the time I got back they were the best of friends. It was the time when Mary Robinson was president and she was on a visit to Paris.

Olympia couldn’t get the Simon and Garfunkel song they kept playing for her: “Here’s to you Mrs Robinson.”

“What is this, what is this ‘here’s to you’?” she asked my sister.

And my sister, who is a master communicator, lifted her glass off the table and raised to her new Greek bff, “Here’s to you, Olympia,” she said, and the penny or the cent or the franc, dropped.

When I came back they had a bond despite the language barrier. Let’s hear it for even a cupla focal.

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