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Divided I fail (to make myself understood)

My French is rubbish. I blame my language unfriendly British 80s education.

I grew up in a time when language was taught like history and equally poorly, with emphasis on grammar and form and less on actually speaking the thing (my analogy with history is that I recall it all being a series of facts and not enough on why history matters, how it forms and moulds societies and why mistakes of the past are probably going to happen again – people are people). So give me a French newspaper and I can follow it pretty well, but when confronted by having to perform anything but the most basic conversation my mouth remains open and silent like a dead goldfish and I begin to panic.

Especially when I did not expect it – as I found out this weekend when I arrived in Ottawa. I had booked what seemed a well located hotel for the meetings I am here to attend and was greeted by a smiling young lady at reception, just what I needed after 13 hours travelling. And then she ruined it by talking to me in French. Weirdly, I almost never get that from hotel staff in Brussels, but then I had managed to book on the Quebec side of the river, so I should have expected it. Because I am not in Ottawa, I’m in Gatineau.

I should also be used to this as well – I mean I was born in Gateshead and ask anyone born up there it matters which side of the Tyne you come from. You share the river, but you are a different palace, if only separated by only a few minutes walking across the bridge. It reminds me of the New Year holiday we spent a few years ago which was in an old canal workers cottage (obviously?) on the edge of the canal. If you ran along the towpath to the left of the front door very soon you came to a viaduct across a flat valley (or is it an aqueduct since it carries a canal as well as a path? Too confusing for today… Let’s ignore that for now). Anyway, as you go out onto the duct thing you have a cheerful sign telling you that you are now going into Wales. In Welsh first of course on the English side and vice versa on the other side. Personally I didn’t see the point of a sign like this in what is almost the middle of nowhere but there you go. I’m sure the makers of signs are rubbing their hands together in anticipation of a possible ‘Yes’ in the Scottish independence referendum later in the year for all extra signs they are going to have to put up to show that somehow we are now different from each other having got along perfectly well with our own cultural identities for the last few hundred years without needing to be political about it.

My problem with my current location, and my lack of decent language skills, is that I want to talk to people here the way they want to. I want to pronounce the place names correctly. It shows respect and makes me feel less stupid, in the way I know visitors to the UK feel when their English is not very good – or even if it is – they fall victim to the level of ridiculous irregularity and inconsistency in my language, especially when applied to place names. Even the English cannot agree who to pronounce Shrewsbury and as far as I am concerned there is no ‘r’ in Newcastle. But hey, I can feel that by Northern blood is rising so I’d better stop before I start campaigning for the reinstatement of Northumbria as a separate country (which I will rule from my fortress of Bamburgh Castle. Ah the dreams of the eight year old fantasist never truly die).

So apologies to my lovely Canadian hosts with my paucity of language skills. Be patient with me and I’ll get there in the end. Or I will just smile and make a quick exit before it becomes too embarrassing.


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