Eating one's words

I stopped by a local bakery recently in search of a snack. As I surveyed the options, I got to thinking about stocking up on snacks for my freezer. When the clerk turned my way, I pointed to the showcase and asked if a particular pastry could be frozen.

She stared at me blankly, uncomprehending.

"Can these be frozen?" I asked again.

Still no response.

So I changed tactics, trying a different form of the word.

"Can I freeze these crullers?"

Her eyebrows lifted.

"Free?" she said, with a foreign accent. "Free? No, they're 75 cents each."

I gave her the money, and left with a cruller, amused and exasperated. I bought nothing for the freezer. Though I'd solved the problem at hand, I'd failed to make even the slightest dent in the larger issue - that in much of my daily life, my American-born English seems more like a foreign tongue.

It wasn't always this way.

When I was growing up in the '50s, everyone, it seemed, spoke English. Sure, there were accents from different parts of the world, but people made themselves understood - natives and foreigners alike. It never occurred to me, as an American kid growing up in her homeland, that I spoke the dominant tongue. I spoke what everyone spoke - or so I thought.

Now, as an adult, I'm keenly aware that my fluent, well-manicured English seems almost quaint - just one more tool that gets me no closer to the pastries I want.

The fact is, many American cities are beyond simply diverse. Not long ago, I received a mailing from a state agency. At the bottom, listed in a dozen languages, was the suggestion that non-English speakers have the mailing translated.

Whatever one's origins, the fact remains that for many of us, there are basically two kinds of people: those who speak your language, and those who don't. If that suggests an "us" versus "them" rivalry, it can sometimes feel that way. At the least, a tension naturally exists where a common language doesn't.

Consider this scenario. A friend and I have been getting lunch at a certain Thai restaurant for several years. Sometimes we eat there, sometimes we order to go. Over time, the particulars of our order have become well-known to the staff. Then the restaurant changed hands and we had to begin from scratch.

Our first encounters with the new crew were fairly simple. The hostess gave us a menu, we pointed to the items we wanted, we signaled how we'd like the dishes to be flavored - two stars of spiciness, not just one.

Placing the same order by phone, however, was another story. With no menu at the ready, and nothing to point to, we would hang by the thread of whatever words we had in common. Alas, those words were too few, and another voice would quickly rescue our order.

But as the weeks went by, a certain rapport was developing. At the restaurant, the new hostess and I would smile at each other, glad to be able to exchange pleasantries.

Over the phone, she now recognized my voice, the details of my order, the familiar name. Then one day on the phone, we ran into a glitch.

In a previous conversation, I thought we had resolved the issue of spiciness by designating "two stars." So I tried that again - twice. When she clearly didn't understand, I tried the words "hot," then "spicy." The air got tangled in frustration. Next thing I knew, a male coworker, more fluent in English, was summoned to the phone to puzzle through the order.

I got off the phone feeling like the ugly American, fast-talking and hungry, too rushed to speak slowly enough for this gracious foreigner.

"It made me sad," the hostess said of our botched phone call when I arrived for my take-out.

I nodded apologetically. I shrugged my shoulders and made a self-mocking Pac-Man gesture with my hand, as if to say that we all speak too fast in our own language. When I deliberately slowed down for emphasis, she laughed at the strange, strained sound of English in slow motion.

There was no winning, perhaps, but at least we had arrived at a compromise. If there was a struggle, it wasn't hers or mine, one or the other, with blame attached. There was plainly a gap between us, oceans and continents that needed a bridge.

While language is always a fine tool, patience should be the common tongue.

* Joan Silverman is a Boston-based writer. Her work has appeared in many publications including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Dallas Morning News.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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