According to a recent survey of Travel Agents in 16 countries, Britons are the least popular tourists abroad while the Germans, like American Express, are welcome anywhere. Apparently, we Brits are rude, weÕre stingy with tips and we donÕt try to speak the local language.
Well of course we donÕt, but itÕs not laziness - itÕs a social handicap. We have a national speech impediment. Some of us in this tower of Babel we call the British Isles have enough trouble getting our flat Northern vowels and lost RP consonants around our native tongue, never mind another language. I mean, is Jade From Big Brother really speaking English or some weird consonant swallowing, gabbling lingo only understood by Estuary dwellers? Of course she thinks East Angular is abroad Š the kid canÕt make out what theyÕre saying, so they must be foreigners. ItÕs a wonder to me that she and Jonny the Geordie ever had a conversation.
With a Scottish accent thick as porridge such as mine, attempting to speak French should come with a Government health warning. How am I supposed to manage a musical language that skips over its fully enunciated consonants with flowery vowels that require the speaker to make girning, kissy faces in order to say them properly? As a rule, my lips donÕt move and I havenÕt pronounced a ŌtÕ in living memory.
I can manage a bit of phonetical, phrase book Spanish and Italian Š sustained by memories of an esteemed academic at Oxford who spoke Spanish like Sir John Gielgud and got away with it. With my guttural ŌochsÕ and Hibernian ŌrÕs rolling round my mouth like boiled sweets, my spoken Arabic is passable, but, as I discovered when I tried to read a German car manual down the phone to a French hire-car employee, asking me to speak Deutsch is like listening to Geri Halliwell singing the Wagner ring cycle. And French? Non merci. Despite what seemed like light years of school French, I still find it difficult to ask for more than a cup of coffee without feeling like I have tongue-tied toads jumping out of my mouth every time I open it. I can read it. I can understand it. I can even hear it, perfectly pronounced in my head, but it comes out sounding like linguistic TouretteÕs syndrome.
The number of times IÕve sat in an upmarket French restaurant, sweating blood over ordering what to eat. My palate is limited by my vocabulary as I end up ordering what I can pronounce rather than what I want. A level French did not prepare me for a Michelin 2 star menu without translation, and there are few indignities worse than the searing scorn of a French waiter who youÕve just asked ŌwhatÕs a boudin blanc?Õ pronounced to a lÕecossaise, to rhyme with rank. There are just too many ŌlÕs in coquilles Saint Jacques. Do you pronounce the ŌtÕ in onglet or not? And grenouilles? Oh hop off.
But thereÕs something of an outbreak of Fear of Foreign Food, as illustrated by a recent announcement from a bagel company (Oi bagel) who have had to change the name of their Aegean salad bagel to Greek salad bagel in all five of their, supposedly, cosmopolitan central London outlets. Some of the variations were so obscure the staff had no idea what they wanted and apparently customers were having problems pronouncing the word ŌAegeanÕ, and rather than get it wrong, would rather save themselves the embarrassment by simply asking for something else. The name changed has boosted sales by 100 per cent.
This is why Chinese restaurants just have numbers. It saves us sounding like a Northern Irish football commentator trying to recite the names of the players on the Korean Football Team. But obviously thereÕs a gap in the market for evening classes in menu-speak. Finally we all might get round to ordering aiguillette, reguigneu or avgolemono soup. Pointing at someone elseÕs plate isnÕt good for the ego.