Another Way of Doing Things

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by Margaret Watson

I have several collections of slang – in English and in French. Even as a native speaker, I find things in the English collection that are new to me – mainly because I speak northern British English and am of a ‘certain’ age. After all people in other parts of the country and in a different age group say things in a different way. A Cornishman will use very different English to someone from The Orkneys. But this applies too to Australian English, Indian English and all the rest. And when it comes to French slang it is a whole new ocean in which I have as yet only dipped a toe or two.

The other night I had a rather strange language experience. We are planning another trip to France – house hunting with our eldest daughter this time – so there has been lots of reading and correspondence in French. Then, a few nights ago I found myself dreaming in French as I sometimes do. At some point I found that I didn’t know the right word to use. I hadn’t forgotten it. This was something I had never known. I found myself putting the dream on hold for a few minutes, thinking, in English, of another way of saying what I wanted, and then continuing my dream.

It was a strange experience, but it is a good trick to be aware of more than one way of saying something.

Try something simple. Just asking ‘Where is the chemist’s shop please?’ Now think of other ways you could say this in case you forgot something. ‘Is there a pharmacy nearby?’ ‘Do you know of a chemists?’ ‘Is there a pharmacy in the village?’ ‘Where can I buy sun-cream please.’ ‘Is there a place I can buy medicines?’ ‘I need to buy toothpaste.’ I am sure you can think of many other examples, but it is worth thinking of these things. It will also help when someone stops you in the street. Instead of saying ‘I’m not English. I don’t understand.’ you will be able to help and point them in the right direction.

I have been speaking English all my life, yet there are still things about it that are new to me. Some language is specialized of course, jargon that belongs to a particular industry or trade, and I can remember as a youngster we delighted in having language that was just ours, that older folk didn’t know. Even they can have their own special language and slang, perhaps dating back to the 1940’s, but this jargonese is usually only used within a particular group. You cannot hope to know it all, and there is almost certainly no need to do so. With practise though you can both make yourself understood and can understand what is said to you.

And don’t forget that people are prepared to make allowances, especially if the learner is obviously willing to try. You don’t have to know every word in the dictionary before starting a conversation. Just use the words you do know and gradually these will increase in number. We have a French speaker in our church, only after two years she hardly ever needs any French – mainly because we were willing to listen carefully, speak slowly, and when necessary explain ( in either French or English) something more than once. Her husband on the other hand, who has been in England just as long, still seems to understand very little English – mainly because he is shy and never asks questions. He isn’t prepared to say anything unless he is absolutely certain of his words. Fortunately they have a small son who will soon be off to school and who chatters away in whatever language seems appropriate. Chris is young enough not to worry about getting it wrong. I don’t know how old you are, but have his attitude. Jus t go up to people and say ‘Hello’ and off you go.