« In The Congo - The Gift Of Travel | Main | Where Do You Live? »

About A Week: So Why Don't You Understand Me?

The English expect the world to conduct it's business in English, says Peter Hinchliffe. And by jingo, for the most part it does!

Harbour Plaza Hotel please!

The Hong Kong taxi driver was puzzled by my request.

"Harbour Plaza. You know. The new hotel. With greeny-blue glass walls. On through Wampoah.'

Puzzlement increased. The taxi driver asked a question. Good grief! He was speaking Chinese. A map was produced. Fingers traced the route. Then the driver threaded his way through Hong Kong's treacle-slow traffic to the door of the Harbour Plaza.

And I was left to reflect on the new imperialism of language. In past centuries we ruled by force. Gunships and British Tommies founded an empire and painted more than half of the world map pink. Now it's words rather than guns. We expect the world to conduct its affairs in the Queen's English.

A surprisingly large number of the world's citizens are eager to oblige. Children in the Czech Republic are keen to learn how to say: "The cat sat on the mat." In distant Tokyo they accept that business runs better when oiled along by English. And the world's best selling book is an English language textbook for Chinese school children. Yes, it even outsellf Harry Potter and John Grisham.

Somewhat cheeky of me though to expect a Hong Kong taxi driver to understand my Yorkshire-accented English.

There are an estimated 1,123 million speakers of Mandarin Chinese in the world and a mere 470 million English speakers. The rest of the linguistic league table is Hindi/Urdu 418 million, Spanish 372 million, Russian 288 million, Bengali 235 million, Arabic 235 million, Portuguese 182 million, Japanese 125 million, French 124 million and German 121 million.

Out of that babble English has emerged as the prime language when nation speaks unto nation, and business to business.

Mind you, there's English - then there's mangled English. Texan English for example. Texans use words such as skoo and smahl. Skoo - a place of learning. "Few don't hurry yore gunna bay late fahwer skoo." Smahl - a facial expression. "Smahl and thuh warld smahls with yew."

Oh yes, I had to learn a new language when I went to work in Texas. Those Texans do have a sense of humour though. My wife's youngest nephew, Wayne Watson, a Texan born and raised, recently e-mailed us some samples of failed attempts to get to grips with the complexities of English.

Sign in a lift in a Paris hotel. "Please leave your values at the front desk."

In an Athens hotel. "Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 am daily."

In a Yugoslavian hotel. "The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid."

In a Japanese hotel. "You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid."

On the menu of a Polish hotel. "Salad a firm's own make, limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger, roasted duck let loose, beef rashers beaten up in the country people's fashion."

In a Zurich hotel: "Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose."

In a Norwegian cocktail lounge. "Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar."

Notice in a Moscow hotel room. "If this is your first visit to the USSR you are welcome to it."

In a Swiss mountain inn. "Special today - no ice cream."

Chuckle, chuckle. Giggle, giggle. But think of the immense task of mastering a language in which a fire can cause a house to burn up and burn down.

Even modern electronic English dictionaries compiled by English speakers are capable of hilarious howlers. A correspondent to a national newspaper said he received a catalogue which included a spellchecker. "No more embarrassing mistakes," announced the sales spiel. "Just type in suspect words and you get an instant correct answer. Enter ELIFANT, it becomes ELEFANT."

In the meantime I'll learn to say in Mandarin Chinese "Please take me to the Harbour Plaza hotel by the quickest route." That should take a month or two of concentrated effort. Even then the taxi driver will probably be amused by my accent.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.