Friday, 17 August 2007

Mind Your Language

books157Of all the problems I encounter in modern-day life as a struggling writer, perhaps the most significant is the language barrier England is currently experiencing as the population continues to expand with the ongoing arrival of our friends from overseas. Many people present unsubstantiated arguments that this is good for the country’s economy. Other people argue that it just puts additional strain on the already over-stretched health and education services.

Whether it’s good or bad for the country doesn’t take away the fact, though, that the most important criteria for foreign-speaking residents should be an ability to speak the national language, or at least have enough command of the language so that the natives understand them. Unfortunately, many of our guests have neither of these abilities, the knock-on effect being that I find it increasingly challenging to order my daily coffee.

It all started with a change in terminology. Whatever happened to small, medium and large? We now seem to have alternative definitions (depending on which café you visit) for perfectly acceptable words, with terms such as tall, which is the equivalent of small but, in reality, is actually large. Then we have grande, which I always associated with large, but apparently means medium or, if you’re an American, regular – a term I was brought up to associate with bowel movements. And then we have all manner of different words which all apparently mean large. I no longer order this particular size of coffee, primarily because none of the words associated with this size are remotely pronounceable in the English language.

Recently, I was avoiding the usual London crowds by taking the back streets when I began to feel rather peckish and so looked around for somewhere to sit down and eat. I found a café (the name of which will remain anonymous) which seemed to specialise in bagels, so decided to take a half-hour break within. On looking at the menu hanging on the wall above the counter, I saw that there was a full array of bagels and fillings on offer. Having always been rather partial to sausages, I chose the third filling on the list: Cumberland sausage with mustard.

A young girl was standing behind the counter looking at me, though didn’t actually say anything, and when I ordered my bagel she continued to look at me in silence without taking any kind of action. I repeated ‘Cumberland sausage with mustard’ in a louder voice which still did not seem to do the trick, and so ended up physically pointing to it on the menu above. This resulted in Bagel Girl smiling and nodding at me, but I felt it safer to repeat the order again anyway. After saying ‘Cumberland sausage’ a couple of times, she seemed to understand, and so I moved onto ‘with mustard’ (which took a few attempts but she understood in the end).

Having taken my food order, she then said the word ‘drink’ which I deciphered as her way of asking me if I required a beverage to wash down my bagel. I asked for a large latte, but she did not understand. I said ‘latte’ in a louder voice and tried to indicate ‘big’ with my hands, and Bagel Girl suddenly smiled and nodded.

The next thing I knew, she was putting two espressos on the counter in front of me. I said that I had not ordered two espressos, but made the mistake of saying it in English, so we went through the whole procedure again of me flapping my arms around with Bagel Girl looking at me blankly. I tried speaking in pidgin English and just said: ‘Espresso’ (whilst shaking my head) followed by ‘Latte’ (whilst nodding it). Bagel Girl apologised and removed the espressos, then disappeared behind the coffee machine only to reappear a few minutes later with not one but two lattes.

She smiled, clearly pleased with herself, and nodded her head. I did not smile, rather unpleased with her, and shook mine. I held up one finger to indicate how many drinks I actually wanted and Bagel Girl realised her mistake. So she removed the two lattes and promptly started making another one. I stopped her straight way and tried to point out in sign language that she did not actually have to take the two away and start again, but just remove one and leave the other. She did not really understand this complex mathematical equation, so I just took my latte and found a seat by the window.

I’d been reading my paper for about five minutes when I heard Bagel Girl shout ‘bagel’. Assuming my bagel was ready, I collected it from her and gave a polite smile. I wish I hadn’t, because when I got back to my table and unwrapped it, I found something vastly removed from my original order. It was a bagel, yes. It was even toasted. It had mustard, which I had ordered. But there was no Cumberland sausage. In fact, there was something else in place of the Cumberland sausage which I am still trying to fathom out the reasons for why anyone would want to eat it in a bagel. Inside my lovely toasted poppy-seed bagel was not a lovely big juicy Cumberland sausage but cranberry sauce... with mustard!

If our foreign friends are good for the economy, they certainly have a lot to answer for regarding bagel fillings.


Emon said...

It's times like these that you wish you could carry a laser pointer and use it on the menu board to order, assuming, of course, the bagel girl can read. :)

insanity-suits-me (Dawn) said...

You would think from the employers perspective that they would want efficient employees... that would imply that you can speak and understand english...

mcewen said...

Age barrier, or language barrier or cultural barrier?

Catwoman said...

I have no idea how to pretend to be a Cumberland sausage to get your point across. I would recommend sticking to animals, like a turkey, for example for future requests.

Very funny though!