Language guilt

by DannyUK

Language guilt.  It’s a little like survivor guilt, but encompasses that horrible feeling you get when you visit a country whose native tongue you can only say “please”, “thank you” and “two beers, please” in. I’ve suffered from it for years, and my holiday photos reflect this.  You’ll see many Facebook pictures of me somewhere in the UK, gurning like a fool on one of the many trips I’ve taken on our own fair island.  There are very few pictures of me outside of the UK simply because getting aboard a ship or a plane is unusual for me.

A trip to Milan in 2002 was my last major trip abroad, and even that was only for a couple of nights.  I still recall vividly the 5 minute long conversation with an Italian taxi driver who spoke no English as he attempted to tell my then-girlfriend to keep hold of her bag because the area was rife with thieves.  At least that’s the message we took from his various actions as he mimed out stealing her bag from her shoulder in a manner that suggested a crossover between Carry On and a game of charades was never going to be commercially successful.

As beautiful as Milan was, the crippling anxiety that came with not speaking the language had put me off going abroad for a long, long time.

Yet I write this entry from a hotel room in Lanzarote. The Spanish-speaking island has some stunningly attractive views, and Mrs DannyUK and I are here for a few days.  Yet neither of us speak Spanish.  So what has changed?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself constantly since we booked the holiday a while back.  Why did I suddenly not feel so bad about speaking the language?

The answer I have come up with is that I’ve grown up a little.  With that maturity comes the self-confidence of not particularly caring what other people think.

I found myself wandering through market stalls earlier on the picturesque Playa Blanca, listening to stall holders converse with locals and holidaymakers alike.  Some of them spoke three or four languages seemingly fluently.  Others knew their native tongue and just about enough English to tell you the price of whatever piece of toot you’ve picked up to reluctantly buy for people back at home.  (“Another fridge magnet? Oh yay!  Thanks…”)

It’s not like I’m here on a freebie.  I’m paying my way and contributing to the local economy, which assuages my guilt somewhat.

I know that I could buy a phrasebook and slowly work my way through saying something in Spanish, but let’s be honest, in an age where everything is a click away, who wants to be doing that? By the time I would have worked out how to ask where the swimming pool was, I could have located it by the sound of splashing, laughter and the loud shouts of fat English blokes bombing their mates in the water.

So I feel no guilt.  Although the girlfriend is naturally outgoing and talkative, happy to chat to anyone, I firmly fit in the stereotype of London-born guy.  If a stranger tries to talk to me, I assume they are out to mug me.  I don’t partake in small talk so much as tolerate it, whether it’s at the till at Tesco or when meeting someone for the first time.  In that respect, being essentially mute abroad suits me down to the ground.  I can smile, say something in English and generally leave things at that.  It almost acts as an apology. “Yes, I’m English, no I don’t speak a word of your language, save your patter for someone more appreciative.”

That said, Lanzarote is lovely.  Seemingly having as much cloud cover as it has beautiful sunshine, it means that I am unlikely to burn (and the liberal application of Factor 50 adds to that).  Staff in the shops, restaurants and even the hotel are friendly without being warm, polite without smiling and generally seem used to the invasion of foreigners who flock to their shores, all red-backed and peeling.

It’s only day two, and I haven’t missed home for a second.  Although home has my friends and family, it also has my bills and responsibilities.

The only thing I miss is a decent internet connection, and maybe a decent cup of tea.  But I’ll survive.  Even if I have to buy a Spanish phrase book to learn where to get either one.

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