Sometimes one of the greatest things about being able to speak a different language in a foreign land is the no one understands you. You can therefore have a certain degree of privacy in what you talk about with your compatriots. I am a little envious when I overhear people on the bus, in restaurants, on the street, in England babbling away in Spanish, Turkish, Urdu, even Swedish occasionally. Always a tad curious about other peoples small talk I do enjoy to listen in, but sadly feel left out and unable to partake in this little ‘hobby’ of mine when confronted by those that speak in the tongue of a far away land. Its a secret and impenetrable world of which I can only imagine and guess the subject. To my ear the unknown language is fast, punchy, snappy, a rattle of notes and pitches, a blur of sound from which no individual words can be identified. Sometimes it is musical, an enjoyment and other times it is just a noise that seems to irritate the inner ear. Always though it brings an element of the exotic, the unknown. Images of far away places, sunshine, bright colours, sights, smells, differences.
Enter the Brit abroad.
Us Brits (and Yanks for that matter) are a privileged lot because we have the luxury of speaking a language that most of the world have at least some knowledge of. We can be understood wherever we are in this rich and great world of ours and that is a big advantage. The one disadvantage though, is that, well, we can be understood!
We can rarely have those moments of ’secret squirrel’. The pleasure of chatting away in a tongue that no one can fathom and people admire from afar is lost. We are not exotic or unknown. There is no sunshine, colour or difference about our language. It is just a extension to many other peoples vocabulary, words that ring in their ears and mean something to them.
Some time ago my family were visiting me in Sweden, we sat in a cosy cafe drinking tea and dipping biscuits and reminiscing about a family friend that had passed away. It was a sad story, he had lived his whole life with his mother, taking care of her and her ailments. He never married or spent any of his hard earned wages on excessive living, apart from the odd holiday to Thailand. He saved all his money up only to go and die 6 months after he retired. Dying even before his sick mother. Safe in the comfortable surrounds of my family in this discussion I brazenly speculated that he was gay, afterall he had never married and maybe those trips to Thailand were a little suspicious, and there was that camp ‘John Inman’ air about him….the discussions tempo went up a notch as we pondered on whether this could be true of our unassuming friend.
From the corner of the cafe a 50+ aged man with his elderly mother got up in haste and cast me a disgusted look. I had obviously offended him and he wanted to show me his outrage by storming out of the cosiness in a flutter of drama!
Maybe he didn’t appreciate us gossiping about the dead or maybe he too lived alone with his mother and took odd trips to Thailand. I have no idea. (I might add here that I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with anyone who does want to live with their mother and enjoy the Thai weather once a year!) But one thing is for sure that Swedes speak very good English so be careful…they can understand….and they also enjoy the ‘hobby’ of listening in on other peoples small talk.