Two miserable years spent in a French classroom and a further year at college eventually saw me scrape a B grade at GCSE level at the grand old age of 20. Other than a tiny smattering of Russian, that’s the only language I speak other than English and I speak it very, very badly. On my travels I’ve managed to pick up three Greek works (thank you, hospital, yes), and have the tiniest touch of survival Spanish but that doesn’t really matter because everyone speaks English. I haven’t met a single person in any country, from any country who doesnt have at least the basic of English, and its embarrassing.
People are very nice, and tell me not to be embarrassed, but I am. In Athens, I didn’t really notice, speaking in English, relying on people who spoke better English to translate between poorer English speakers and me, although in Exarchia, as people changes languages multiple times to find the most inclusive form of communication between any particular group, I did start to feel a bit disadvantaged, and actually a little put out when they changed to a language that I didn’t speak, despite the fact that for the majority of the time, my presence was pushing the group to speak English.
In Paris, I did try out my French. It started with managing to get to the counter in a cafe and then running out in embarrassment because although I kindof knew what the words were and what order they went in, I was so fearful of making myself look stupid that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Realising that I was most probably going to starve to death if I let this continue, saw me make half-hearted attempts at saying what I wanted in French and then almost immediately repeating in English, and being very proud of myself for making the effort.
It wasnt until I got to Clichy sous Bous that I started to see my behaviour for what it was. Clichy sous bous is almost exclusively Black, yet at the same time very ethnically diverse. French is universally spoken with Arabic probably the next most popular language, English is simply not a priority here and few speak it. Attempting to get a haircut, with my bad French and the collective efforts of all seven people in the hairdressing salon was an exercise in mimed communication. For the first time in my life I was in an area with no-one else at all who had the same skin colour as me or who spoke my language.
My white skin gives me huge advantages, in a country where almost all of the most powerful, most wealthy and most well-connected people are white reflecting the global power structure, regardless of the local dynamics, and similarly my ability to speak English, the language of power and privilage marks me out as superior. Even where no-one else speaks the language, it is a respected language and people make the effort to try to understand it, in a way that Arabic is not respected, despite it being a major language of communication.
Yet at the same time, I felt the exclusion of being an ethnic minority among people who were much more able to communicate with each other than they were with me. As the women in the salon discussed among themselves how my hair should look with me relegated to dumbly agreeing to half understood instructions, I felt the powerlessness of being an object of a discussion undertaken in a way that I could not participate in, shape or substantively change by virtue of the communication method.
Thinking more on this on the way back from Clichy sous Bois saw me realise that when I used English, with or without a half-baked attempt to speak French, I was asserting my superiority as an English speaking person. Not only was there an arrogant assumption that they would communicate in my preferred language, but also that it always put me at an individual advantage over them, rather than the other way round. When I speak in French, it is obvious that I am a foreign speaker, unable to use correct grammar, tenses, pronouns, vocabulary etc.; essentially I look fairly stupid. When I subtly demand that a conversation is conducted in English however, I have the upper hand. It is the other person who now is required to make an effort, who struggles to express themselves, while I simplify my language to enable them to understand. Giving me a feeling of superiority. In reality, it is they who demonstrate their superior ability in being able to communicate, but this is hidden behind using English as the language of choice, which allows me to continue with feeling of superiority in communication – that it is their failure to understand complex sentance structure or vocabulary which is leading me to simplify my language, while I skip merrily on my way, ignorant of my own ignorance.
I am trying as much as possible to extend the five words of Spanish I know to something that can at least enable basic communication in Castillian while I am in Catalonia. The long suffering residents of Barcelona may wish that I never had such an insight as they patiently struggle to understand me, and look with pity on my poor communication skills.