UM, PARLEZ-VOUS ENGELSKA?

Jenna Orkin

Sometimes Americans travelling abroad get a nasty surprise: Not everyone they meet speaks English. Often, of course, the natives we run into speak English better than we do. In Amsterdam, for instance, an old lady feeding the pigeons gave me such articulare directions, I identified her immediately as a CIA operative. And a wandering eccentric muttering to himself proved on closer inspection to be reciting Chaucer. This cosmopolitanism can be intimidating to one who secretly wishes there was a need to whip out the phrase book and order Dutch Split Pea Soup in Dutch.
But off the tourist-beaten track this can in fact occasionally be necessary. There still are places where one needs not only to do as the Romans do but also speak as the Romans speak though most of them are well outside of Rome. With these places in mind I feel justified in packing a small phrase book to study on the train.
I harbor another kind of fantasy as well, when travelling. I imagine wandering, as happened to a friend of mine in North Africa, onto, say, a military base and landing in a situation fraught with misunderstainding and danger. And so, while the effort usually ends up as so much excess baggage, still I study my phrase book with the intensity of someone learning CPR.
My anxiety is soon rewarded. In fact, reading phrase books can quickly become a hypnotic activity for one in a frame of mind as susceptible as mine to dire suggestion. For the authors have a bent for the disastrous that hovers gratifyingly on the edge of paranoia: These compact bibles contain every mishap likely to befall the most ill-fated visitor.
Often, as in the Italian text before me now, the opening sentence reads, "Is there anyone here who speaks English?" With a bit of luck the answer to that will obviate the need for the rest of the chapter. But if it's No, the hapless tourist will have to read on:
"I do not speak Italian./ I've lost my way./ What are you saying?/ I can't find my wallet./ I've been robbed./ Call the police."
The gamut of human drama rests within these slim volumes. Thus by page two of the same Italian text we have reached a degree of emergency rivalled only by soap opera synopses: "Help./ Fire./ I am an American./ Take me to the American Consulate./ I've left my overcoat on the train./ I cannot find my hotel./ I've lost my passport./ I cannot find my husband/ wife/ son/ daughter."
Wiped out by these events I am relieved by the title of the next chapter, "Miscellaneous Encounters," until I spot the subheading: "At the Police Station." The ensuing dialogue is, as ever, in the to-the-point style of a hijacker: "You are under arrest./ I want a lawyer./ This is your last warning./" etc.
Of course the texts also deal with the banal necessities of travel. But even these passages are written with the authors' ever world-weary eye and have a sinister subcurrent:

"This room is too small. How much is the larger one?
The weekly rate is 10,000,000 lire.
Do you have something cheaper?
No and I must inform you that you pay in advance.
I will pay for two nights and that is all."

For visitors who wish to acquire more subtlety than the chimpanzee who, via computer, instructs her keeper, "Tickle Lana," there are, of course, longer texts. These lack the urgency of the economy phrase books. In fact, they sprawl over topics of such breadth and variety as to take the breath away. Witness a passage such as the following from Exercise Nineteen of Teach Yourself Dutch: "1. Do not talk like a school-master. 2. You are not a school-master. 3. And get a shave and buy another hat. 4. I am afraid he will never become commander-in-chief or even a general. 5. Isn't dinner ready, yet? 6. Her brother-in-law is a civil servant."
But of course it is not only for their action-packed scenes and surreal sequences that the reader may lose herself in a language text. It is also for the aesthetic pleasure of finding order in what previously seemed like chaos, i.e., the joy of learning a few phrases of a foreign language. This delight is heightened by hope. For linguists assure us that the more languages one studies, the easier the study of languages gets. Once one masters one foreign language, they imply, all its friends and relations follow soon behind.
Take, for instance, the passive voice. Anyone who has studied a Romance language knows that the passive (as in, "My car was stolen, my wallet snatched and my house, set on fire,") may be expressed by the reflexive, ("I make myself a drink.") Thus we can translate a sign in a shop window that proclaims, "Se Habla Espanol," whether or not we have ever studied Spanish. "Spanish is spoken!" it cries and not, "Spanish speaks itself," or, "He speaks Spanish to himself." And this can be surprisingly reassuring - like the appearance of an acquaintance at a party of strangers - if the shop in question is in Central Uzbekistan.