Friday, December 6, 2013

Speaking each others' language

"Some cafés in the central arrondissements - especially the 6th - have more customers reading the International Herald Tribune than Le Monde, and waiters who will immediately address you in English." - "Paris Revealed" by Stephen Clarke.

A weird exchange


"Καλημέρα." (Hello)

"Yes please."

"Ένα φραπέ παρακαλώ." (A frappé please)

"Sugar? Milk?"

"Ναι, με γάλα και λίγο σάχαρη, ευχαριστώ." (Yes, with milk and a little sugar, thanks)

Places frappé on counter. "Three euros fifty please."

Counts out money. "Τρία και πέντε... Ευχαριστώ πολύ." (Three fifty...thanks a lot)

"Thank you."

One person in this exchange is talking Greek, albeit inexpertly, and the other is talking English, albeit inflexibly and robotically, part of their tourist coffee shop routine. I'm the one essaying some Greek, to someone who is presumably a Greek, in Greece. But they insist on replying only in English as if I hadn't bothered. I say presumably, because of course they could actually be Italian, Uzbeki, or even German. In any case surely they can conduct that simple exchange in the language of the country in which we both find ourselves. If I can they can. So why don't they?

If cyberspace is the place where a telephone conversation seems to occur, as the man says, then what’s the space called where you're in this kind of a conversational situation with someone. It deserves to be named. I call this type of exchange Language Crosstalking, where A speaks B-ish to B who responds in A-ish. I don’t know if there’s an official name for it. In any case, it's a strange linguistic and cultural no mans land to find yourself in.

Until recently, I used to feel like I should defer to the hotel receptionist, waiter, or barista who refuses my opening language gambit, obstinately sticking to English in the face of my friendly overtures to speak the local tongue, their tongue. They work here, they know what they're doing, they're seasoned performers, who, if they come across as condescending in their refusal to meet me halfway, are probably simply trying to avoid a misunderstanding. The waiter who can speak 3 or 4 European languages on hearing my poor attempt at Greek knows I could, for instance, mix up λουκάνικα (sausages, loo-KA-ni-ka) with λαχανικά (vegetables, la-ka-ni-KA). They're busy turning over a lot of tables on the square or the main strip, serving Germans and Dutch, English and Irish, Russians and Poles, usually through English (or at least Globish).


The beautiful old town of Nafplio, where an unfortunate incident of crosstalking occurred.

The men who score for Greece

I say 3 or 4 languages but that may be selling some of them short. In their determination to prevent you from enjoying your evening’s perambulation the restaurant Kamaki guys (these are the hustlers who importune you at the boundary of the restaurant, strategically placed beside the menu pedestal) seem to leave no language stone unturned. Once, strolling through Πλατεία Αγίου Μάρκου (St. Mark's Square) in Zakynthos with my family we got hit on by this guy outside an Italian restaurant. "Where are you from, my friend?", walking with us, shaking my hand, the full Monte. I wasn't giving an inch, keeping quiet as he rapidly iterated through the list of nationalities known to visit the island, saying a few words in each language with no success, until he ran out of options and gave up at the edge of the square.

"I'm Irish", I said, thinking I'd schooled that guy in long tail economics. His face lit up. "Conas tá tú? An bhfuil tú go maith?" Jaaayysus, he can speak better Irish than me. I halted our entourage, turned around, we got a table, he got his sale, we ate pizza, we took photos and were happy. I didn't even speak any Irish back to him - the truth is that at this stage when it comes to the cúpla focal I'm rusty as an old Zetor up a Cleggan boreen, and I'd hazard a guess that that those few phrases were about all he knew too - but he had communicated to me metalinguistically, and it worked. We were going to eat somewhere, so why not there.

When you have a couple of choices about which language to use with someone, the one you pick says a lot about your relationship and your intent towards that person. If I try a little Greek in Greece, I might say one thing and mean another:
  • "Ένα φραπέ παρακαλώ." I know you think I'm just one of the tourist herd, but I'm not, I'll have you know.' or
  • "Κάνει ζέστη σήμερα." See? Speaking some Greek here. Respect!

And when they answer in English, it might be:
  • "That’s three euros fifty." I know you think you've made some soulful connection to Greece by learning to speak a few phrases, but you’re just another tourist to me.
  • "Milk? Sugar?" I'm still off my face from partying at Bad Boy's till 4 that I’m not even registering what language you’re speaking. All I know is you want a coffee. Or something.

There are of course cases though where the cross-talking is benign: I don’t mean at all to imply that there can only ever be a mischievous agenda behind it. On our way home from Zakynthos, we stopped for a couple of days in Nafplio, staying at the excellent Hotel Kastello. At breakfast when I tried talking to the friendly owner in Greek - he was asking us what we wanted, coffee, bread, etc - he answered me in English. Έλα φίλος, don’t crosstalk me! When I asked him, in a charming way I swear, why he was answering me in English, he apologised and admitted that like me, he used opportunities like these to improve his English. Even, apparently, if they are talking Greek to him. Fair enough.

Maybe it’s just a phase (transition) you’re going through

Seriously, I think it’s an inevitable stage you have to go through learning a language. I get it here too with my Hispanic amigos. I have enough proficiency to be able to communicate with them alright, but not to understand everything that’s said back at me, so my hispanohablante contertulios (participants in a tertulia, which is an artistic - or in our case, language study - get-together) might switch to English for my benefit, bueno, that’s ok. But now which language are we all speaking? The conversation is an unstable state. But it might actually be metastable, 'next to stable'.

Under normal circumstances, the flow of traffic on a road slows down to maintain a stable state to accommodate the crush of drivers at busy times of the day, or on a stretch where conditions have changed. But apparently a state of 'metastability' can exist where people don't actually have to slow down if everyone keeps their nerve and drives perfectly. Think of Google driverless cars keeping up the maximum allowed speed, packed bumper to bumper. It's a hyperefficient state, but extremely precarious. And it's not to be confused with instability as it could in theory last for a while. Unlikely though, as it's highly sensitive to the slightest change, in which case the whole thing collapses back to a stable state, in the case of traffic probably via a pile-up. Water freezing, and other systems which undergo phase transitions exhibit the same behaviour.

So I liken this language crosstalking to a physical system in a metastable state. It's a wildly silly metaphor, of course, but the fact is that conversations can happen in different states. Most of the time they're stable; both people speaking the same language. But in casual multilingual conversational situations you can find yourself talking in a way whose state is best described as metastable. In theory, if both parties are happy to do so, you can go on crosstalking for a while. But to me at least it feels like you're going further and further out on a limb. It's a land with no laws - if a disagreement starts, for example, which language do we switch to? Or do we just cross-thrash it out? Probably not: any bump or nudge is likely to restore monolingual stability.

And so, as long as I'm the perpetual intermediate stage with Spanish, French, and beginning Greek I can expect to find myself in a lot of these situations. Undaunted, I will press on in the conversation in (crap) Spanish, French, or Greek. And they'll like it. Because I understand conversational metastability can persist. You just have to keep your nerve.