Monday 22 November 2010

Language barrier

Hmmm, let's see now: shall I get the express bus at 8.30 in the morning, or the local bus at 10.30? Shortly after 7.30 I was regretting my decision, as I was rudely awoken by everyone less lazy than me clattering down the stairs with their suitcases and shouting unnecessarily at one another.

The boot was on the other foot at 10.15 though when, replenished by the extra sleep after their hostile interruption, I arrived at Tha Khaek bus station to find them all slumped miserably on uncomfortable wooden benches where they had spent the last two hours or so since the express bus had been cancelled. I try not to be smug for too long, since doing so has a habit of returning to kick me in the ass, but I'll indulge myself on this one: Ha-ha. Suckers.

I've just finished reading a brilliant book called Iron and Silk by an American named Mark Salzman. It's a wonderful collection of observations and recollections from his time in China in the early 80s, none of which would have been possible had he not actually spoken the language. Swapping seats during the ride to Savannakhet when I lost the feeling in both my legs, I found myself next to a Laotian guy who spoke a bit of English and was keen to chat. "I teach you Lao", he unwittingly offered, as I reluctantly unplucked the headphones.

Within a couple of hours he had managed to teach me how to say "Good Luck" and "Help!" in addition to "Hello" and "Thank you very much" which I already proudly boasted among my armoury. But I now have some interesting phonetic pronunciation notes scrawled across the back of my Lonely Planet, and a printed e-ticket decorated with various scribblings, including an enormous "I love you" in Lao that could make check-in interesting.

As soon as I got to my guest house in Savannakhet I took a stroll around town, and within five minutes I'd been accosted by a guy from the local Eco-Tourism unit. He was trying to respond to a series of lengthy questions from a Dutch company that is providing funding for them, and was struggling with the English. An hour or so later, and I can't help thinking that the recipient of his lyrical reply might not wonder if he'd had a bit of passing help, but somehow it seemed the right thing to do.

All of which led me to reflect that speaking a native language does far more than make life easier for you. It creates the opportunity to engage with locals and gain their trust, respect and understanding. It gives you the confidence to approach people and make allowances for the offence you dread causing them. It makes every second of the time you invest there rewarding and enriching.

I think back to conversations with taxi drivers and strangers in South America, where my fledgling Spanish was pathetic, but still enough, and dearly wish I could speak Lao.

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