Speaking the Lingo and Talking the Talk-

A language cannot be hard to learn. A child can do it.

OK, although most linguistics experts agree that children are quicker and learn new languages with ease than adults.

Of course there are some notoriously difficult languages, such as Japanese and many of the obscure African languages that utilise clicks and other sounds that are not in our sound vocabulary, but where European languages are concerned I don’t believe there is anyone who cannot become familiar enough to understand and make themselves understood in a relatively short space of time. And while heavy work is made of conjugating verbs and swatting up vocabulary lists in schools it is only necessary to spend some time living, working or travelling in a country to learn the basics of that country’s language.

For some, however even the radical step of moving to a new country does not lead to language acquisition-you have only to visit some of the areas of the Spanish Mediterranean with large concentrations of British to see this. Many ex-pats remain solely English-speakers in spite of adopting a new land. Heaven knows what the Spanish think of this…

Our latest trip covered a number of countries and languages, prompting some challenging demands on my inconsistent language skills. As a schoolgirl I learned French, German, Latin and Spanish with varying degrees of success. That I had most success with French I attribute to long summer camping holidays in France with non-French-speaking parents. Like many I gave up on Latin early, seeing no point in continuing and I was a miserable failure at German, whose grammar mystified me [and still does]. The Spanish was an add-on to A-levels, and seemed easy for being similar to French.

We travelled across Northern France into Germany, then Austria. Unlike the French, Germans are not only excellent English speakers but are also happy to speak in English-particularly, at this time on the subject of Brexit. ‘We DO NOT understand the Brexit!’ they told us on more than one occasion. What are we to say? We could only agree that, no, neither could we. On then to Italy. Italian is a most beautiful and musical-sounding language, enough to make anyone want to learn it for the sheer pleasure of speaking it, but for anyone who has learned Spanish the similarity between the two languages leads to much initial confusion. I consistently muddled my ‘grazie’ with my ‘gracias’, my ‘due’ with my ‘duo’ and my ‘per favore’ with my ‘por favor’ etc. After a week or so I fared better and, armed with the ‘Lonely Planet Phrase Book’ was able to stumble through some phrases. I felt inordinately proud when my much practised ‘lavatrice giettone, per favore’ resulted in the swift handing over of a washing machine token, more so when ‘prego’ was the response to my ‘grazie’.

Of course most people understand a nod or a shake of the head and when one set of words doesn’t work another way of saying something often does. And we are yet to meet anyone who doesn’t understand a smile-

 

Is the art of conversation dead? Discuss!

                No one can dispute that the way we communicate is changing. You don’t need to leave the house to know it. Our homes are full of screens of various types. Unless you live in the Amazon rainforest or a village in Papua New Guinea you will have access to some means of electronic communication-and even then I don’t doubt that whilst they are celebrating their hunting trips, dancing around a totem pole and performing gruesome initiation rites the younger members of these jungle communities will be texting or playing ‘Angry Birds’.

                Science and technology forecasters assure us that in the future almost everything will be a screen; smart fridges, washing machines…even our clothing. We’ll be able to shrug on our Mulberry raincoat, walk to the bus stop and text onto the pocket as we go, or talk to the collar…or just talk. We are already used to seeing people walking along gibbering animatedly. Once upon a time they’d have been thought to have been a little strange and you might have crossed the street to avoid them. Now though, they will be talking to someone else; imparting valuable gems of information such as ‘I’m in the supermarket’ or ‘I’m on the bus’.

                But what, in the midst of all this wonderful development, is happening to conversation? And what is happening to social interaction? Many [I suspect younger] folks consider screen based communication a boon. I do myself. I do the Facebook thing. I email. I text. I rarely chat on the telephone. There is one peculiarity, however that I exhibit that draws pitying looks or exclamations of amusement. I do own a smartphone, but I keep it turned off. Yes! I know how strange this is. What if someone texts me, or sends me an email, or posts something new on to Facebook? What will I do? Well the answer, reader is that I will see all these vital snippets of news or information later-when I switch the thing on [which I do, in an idle moment, about once each day].

                Am I alone in considering it antisocial to be staring at a screen in the company of others? It is an increasingly common sight-a group of individuals seated around a table at a pub or in a restaurant, all staring down at their phones. Why did they come out together? And what are they doing? Reading texts? Watching ‘Youtube’? To me this is like ignoring the person next to you at a dinner table to speak to someone at the other end. Are they playing games? Why?

                I’m predicting that within a couple of years whatever government is in will be hurrying in emergency initiatives to combat lack of speech in children, and dictating that the art of conversation be taught in schools-beginning, perhaps with teaching ‘eye-contact’ skills in Key Stage One.

                Or maybe it doesn’t matter if no one speaks to anyone else face to face in the future. Kay sera sera.