Opinion

Jake O'Kane: I've been threatening to both learn Irish and how to play the mouth organ for over 20 years – neither has happened

Jake O'Kane

Jake O'Kane

Jake is a comic, columnist and contrarian.

If we're serious about giving tourists a céad míle fáilte, we'll need to be able to speak more than English, Irish and Dungiven
If we're serious about giving tourists a céad míle fáilte, we'll need to be able to speak more than English, Irish and Dungiven If we're serious about giving tourists a céad míle fáilte, we'll need to be able to speak more than English, Irish and Dungiven

I've just printed out a German homework for my 16-year-old son. Always confident of my latent genius, I tried to read some of the text. He was not impressed, telling me I sounded like a north Belfast Hitler.

While I've argued in the past that I'm bilingual due to being able to speak both English and Dungiven fluently, it remains one of my life's regrets that I never picked up a second language. It's a standing joke in the O'Kane household that I've been threatening to both learn Irish and how to play the mouth organ for over 20 years. Neither has happened.

At my advanced years I no longer possess the mental plasticity for either language or music. And before any of you write to tell me I'm wrong, I must admit another impediment – namely that I'm too lazy to take on such challenges.

It wasn't until I travelled to Europe that my linguistic deficiencies became evident; if I'd have stayed in north Belfast, like most of my contemporaries, I'd never have known.

Many years ago, we were holidaying at a campsite in the Netherlands when I joined a queue to buy ice cream. There were about four people ahead of me and I was close enough to hear the seller ask each one their country of origin before conversing in their language. To my untrained ear, he sounded fluent in Italian, German, French and Spanish.

When it came my turn to order, and having discovered where I was from, he shocked me by speaking Irish, much to my embarrassment. The look on my face was enough for the poor man to realise I couldn't speak my own language and he seamlessly glided from Irish into perfect English.

Face aglow and feeling utterly humiliated, I limped back to tell my tale of woe, much to my wife's amusement. I ended with the often-heard threat, "You can laugh, but I'm telling you, I'll be speaking Irish before the year is out."

At least I'd the humility to be embarrassed by my limitations. I don't want to generalise – which you'll all recognise as something said before a generalisation – but I've found that English tourists are rarely bothered by such language limitations.

They presume that all nationalities should be able to speak English and if they don't, they deal with the situation by increasing their volume and ending up shouting at the natives.

Admittedly, in most Spanish hotspots, the locals are fluent in English if able to recognise, "two pints of lager, mate" and "a full English breakfast". As someone who's been in places where English isn't common, such as Egypt and northern India, meeting someone who speaks your language feels like meeting a long-lost family member.

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The decision by our prestigious universities to close their language departments seems out of step with an economy ever more dependent on tourism. While technology will allow a fairly accurate translation between hotelier and visitor, it will never have the same impact as a member of staff able to converse in the tourist's language.

I will continue to encourage my children to study a second or even third language. I've been hinting that Irish would be a great choice, if only to avoid an embarrassing situation similar to the one I endured in the Netherlands.

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While most nations use bread as a barometer to judge the rise in inflation, we use alcohol. After each UK budget, the first question asked isn't how much did they put up a loaf, but by how much have they put up a pint?

The alcohol increases pale into insignificance compared to what happened to local woman, Lynsey Bennett, on a city break with her husband Wayne, to a five-star hotel in London.

After an enjoyable night on the town seeing a show and having a meal, the couple decided to round off their evening with a night cap in the hotel bar.

Looking through the cocktail menu, Lynsey settled on one called 1890, presuming that was what it cost. She was wrong; the cocktail she'd ordered didn't cost £18.90 but £1,890.

On showing the bill to husband Wayne he informed her that as she'd ordered it, she could sort it out and promptly left the bar for his bed. Luckily for Lynsey the hotel manager was more understanding. So let this be a cautionary tale and before you get carried away ordering a 1690 or 1916 cocktail be sure to check the actual price.