by Margaret Watson
Wherever people meet they communicate. Often words are general, ones that everyone can understand, but there are also specialist languages, or jargon that are only used by a particular group or on special occasions.
We recently put our house up for sale – only to discover that in estate agent speak it isn’t a ‘house’, but a ‘property’. We don’t have windows looking over the garden either – these were translated into ‘double aspects’. Our back room becomes a ‘utility room’ and the smallest bedroom becomes a ‘studio’.
Words can mean different things in different situations. In England a fitted kitchen implies one with units fixed to the wall, ready to use and only needing alteration if that is what you want. We have been looking at houses in France. In by far the majority of those that were empty almost all the kitchens, whether described as fitted or not, had little more than a sink, perhaps a cooker hood and some electrical fittings. Cupboards had disappeared. In one case they were still in place, but the owner assured us that they would be removed before the new owners took over. We discovered too that, ’needing slight renovation’ could even mean such things as needing new floor boards, new staircase or fireplaces, whereas ‘total renovation’ meant that at least the roof is missing, and often much of the walling, and the term seems to be applied to any situation where a dwelling once stood.
Looking at any page of small advertisements will uncover all kinds of specialist language and abbreviations. G.S.O.H. is of course good sense of humour, but what about ‘studio flat’? This usually means a shoe box, which includes a kitchen corner and a cupboard which turns out to contain both toilet and shower. Words such as ‘companionship’ can cover anything from a friendship based on a common hobby to a full sexual relationship. Even those familiar with such language cannot always tell. Anyone learning a new language cannot hope to understand all these nuances at first, but whether looking for a new partner or a home there is usually someone who can help, though dictionaries aren’t always much use.
Speaking of dictionaries why do they never have the words you really need? I have several foreign language dictionaries that explain exactly what is meant by Nibelungentied – a 13th century German poem, or which explain at length who Oersted was – a Danish physicist; but which fail to include the name for the third foot pedal in a car – the clutch. There must be a dictionary somewhere that includes this, but I don’t have it, yet our clutch has broken on two occasions overseas in places where English was not spoken, though I have never needed to discuss 13th century German poetry or Swedish physicists anywhere at all.
Even phrase books may have useful phrases such as ‘Where is the railway station?’ – something usually well sign posted – but are unlikely to include really useful phrases , at least to me , such as ‘My daughter is stuck in the toilet and the lock has jammed’. This latter was needed on a ferry where none of the crew spoke English and at a time when my French was more basic than today. Then again how often does such a situation occur?
Nowadays my French can best be described as ‘functional’. By this I mean that though I don’t always say things in exactly the same way as a French person does, I can make myself understood. All I have to do now is to learn to understand them – which would best be achieved by fitting French people with a speed button and a repeater, so that I can listen to the language at a speed I can cope with.
One new trick I’ve learnt recently is to watch quiz shows, especially those where the question appears on the screen. You have both the spoken and the written word so everything is reinforced. Also the host often repeats a question. A karaoke programme has also proved useful as the words appear as they are sung. Half an hour a day while on a recent trip really extended my vocabulary – and much more efficiently than listening to formal language discs.