Last week’s Wordplay Wednesday post, about foreign capitals, was inspired by traveling in Central Europe last summer. My wife and I were in Budapest, Prague, and Vienna, and we enjoyed all three cities very much.
I don’t speak Hungarian, Czech, or German and don’t even have the first pronunciation clue when it comes to the first two. So, like most Americans abroad, I relied on the kindness of strangers. I assumed, with the implicit optimism of a young nation, that the millions of people I was visiting had all taken the time to fluently acquire my native language, since I hadn’t done jack about learning theirs. I don’t like traveling that way, but there you have it.
I spent lots of the trip looking at phrasebooks, trying to master a few conversational phrases so I didn’t seem like the worst kind of Ugly American. (Just the second worst.) I noticed that, among the phrases these guides list, one of the first is inevitably “Do you speak English?”
But take a moment to consider: that is the only phrase you will never need to learn in a foreign language. If someone can speak English, they don’t need to you to hear your (creaky, laughable) attempt at their native language. And if they can’t speak English, that will soon become apparent no matter how you start the conversation.
Now you might argue that starting off with a “Do you speak English?” in the local tongue is, at minimum, a polite gesture, even if it’s not strictly necessary. But that’s where you’d be incredibly, embarrassingly wrong. It’s misleading to tell someone you don’t speak their language while speaking their language. It leads to confusion. If someone on the street asked me “Do you speak Spanish?” in English, I would reflexively answer in English. I might say “Sure, a little, what do you need?” and they would have no idea what was going on. I would prefer they ask “¿Habla Ud. español?” because that way they’ll be sure to understand both answers: either a friendly “Sí” or a confused squint.
The same goes for English-speakers abroad. Don’t chat someone up in Danish or Korean or Urdu if you know you’ll never understand the reply. That space in phrasebooks could be more profitably filled with a phrase like, “Will this give me diarrhea” or “Please give me the real price and not the rip-off tourist one” or “Ha ha no, I swear, I’m actually Canadian!” Or, best of all, “I’m so sorry this is the only sentence I can say in your beautiful language.”
Wordplay Wednesday! Take the name of a basketball player who, though a famous name, never played in the NBA. Switch the final letters in his first and last names. Now you have a kind of person that’s well-represented in many basketball organizations–but, again, not the NBA. Who is the player?
Edited to add: Hints and answer here. gwynn1984 was the first responder.