Eiffel Tower (Photo: ©Howard E. Daniel, 1965-2018)
Have you ever been too embarrassed to dust off your high school French or Spanish when you’re in a country where you’re actually immersed in that linguistic environment? It can be pretty uncomfortable, as I can attest from witnessing any number of such situations. Some people — even talkative ones — suddenly find themselves all but mute.
Not me, though. I don’t know if I can attribute this to my genes, but when I’ve learned even a few words of a language, I’ve never hesitated to try them out. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? Even if you mangle the sounds coming out of your mouth — and yes, I certainly have — and generate quizzical looks, why be embarrassed? You’re hardly likely to see these people ever again.
One incident I recall took place on my first visit to Japan, in 1971, when I was traveling back to the U.S. from India, where I’d been serving in the Peace Corps, hopping from one Asian country to the next. Japan was my final stop before getting on a plane for New York, and, as I had in most of the other places I’d visited on that roughly three-month journey, I’d made it a point to learn a few things in the local languages. Not only the words for please and thank you, but phrases like how much does it cost and where is. And, often, the numbers from one to 10.
While traveling overland for a couple of weeks by train, bus and boat from Fukuoka (on Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island, where I first landed) north to Tokyo, I met a couple of other American travelers, Japanese-American girls from Hawaii, as I recall, and we spent a day or two seeing some of the sights together. If memory serves me correctly, they told me they’d studied Japanese in high school, but while we were together, they always looked to me — the quintessential gaijin (foreigner) — to do the talking whenever we had a question for a local person. They just seemed not to want to open their mouths and betray the fact that despite their appearance,* for them Japanese was an alien tongue.
I found it mildly amusing, but went right ahead and — I feel sure — made a fool of myself in my primitive tourist Japanese. But I’ve found that local folks, not only in Japan but in most countries I’ve visited, generally make allowances and good-naturedly enjoy the spectacle of a foreigner going the extra mile (no, kilometer!) to try addressing them in their own language.
Some years earlier, on my first visit to France, my lack of inhibition about trying out a language with which I was hardly familiar led to a big comeuppance. Just how much French did I know? Let me put it this way. I’d traveled to Europe that year, 1965, on a ship whose only passengers were students heading off for a summer abroad. The day after we left New York Harbor, the ship’s activity director suggested that those who knew a foreign language might want to give lessons to anyone else who was interested. So I joined a small group that met every morning on deck for an hour or so to learn a little French. That was the full extent of my studies.
Not long afterward, in Paris, I was staying in a student hostel some distance from the center of the city. Early one evening, I wanted to go into town to see the nightlife. There was a Metro station a short distance from the hostel, but I knew that at a certain hour the trains stopped running. I wanted to be sure I could return before that and not have to spend the night on a park bench along the Champs-Élysées.
So I walked up to the ticket booth to ask at what time the last train would be running. Confident I was using the right words, I asked for the time of the train prochain. Matter-of-factly, the lady in the booth gave me a time that was less than five minutes away.
I knew that could not be right, so I did “what anyone would do” in such a situation — or at least any cock-sure American tourist. I asked again … a little louder. Lo and behold, I got the same answer. Two or three more times I repeated my question, turning up the volume with each try. Finally I ran out of spare decibels, hopped on a train and just headed into town.
It was only later that I realized that prochain means next. The word I’d needed was derneir, last!
As my mom would have said, “Pride goeth before a fall.” And she might well have added another of her favorite phrases, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Right, Mom!
* For another story about how Americans of Japanese ancestry (AJAs) can create confusion in Japan, see One of the Cowboy States.