Continental Babel

"Speak French like a diplomat!" "Speak German like a diplomat!" These advertisements amuse me, because the several diplomats I have known were proficiently non-other, and most of them spoke an English that is no credit to our public school system. I was in West Germany when Dr. Conant of Harvard arrived to become High Commissioner for the Occupation. Dr. Conant was a scholar, as contrasted wiht a diplomat, and there certainly were those in the headquarters at Mehlem who hoped Dr. Conant would not impose cultural requirements above their capacity. Dr. Conant, unlike the traditional Anglo-American ministers, felt it would be nice to speak to the natives in their own tongue, so he decided to extend his scholar's knowledge of German. He took a tutor or two to tutor him in the Teutonic, and shortly he made his first ambassadorial oration in German. As I remember, he was in Berlin.

The next day the front-page "lead article" in the Munich Mercurym translated Dr. Conant's German speech so it might be understood by the Bavarians.

In this context, if you have not known, there has been some agitation in recent years to have every book published in the German Federal Republic appear in two editions -- one for the North and one for the South. The controversy has been on a more elevated plane than our domestic squabble over bilingualism, no doubt because the average German knows more about languages than the average American. With some assurance, a visitor can step off a train in Germany and ask his question in almost any tongue. There was a bus driver in Wolfsburg who met the trains and carried people from all over the world to the Volkswagen factory so they could drive away in a new automobile. He'd see whichever passport his passenger was carrying, and he'd shift from Persian to Chinese to Russian to Spanish to Choctaw to classical Greek; wihtout hesitation he changed from Polish to greet me with "Good morning!" He told me he was sure of himeself in 10 tongue including dialects, and could get along in a half dozen more. Such international proficiency is probably rare, but it can be found, whereas the hamburgers have trouble understanding the folks from Passau.

I learned my small German, as the Germans say, "in school." On my first visit to that coutnry I soon foundmy classsroom preparation inadequate. "Please make my bed," as a command to the Zimmermadchen, is mighty fine schoolbook, but serves only slightly in a country where the goosedown fluff is thrust termined chambermaid who hardly waits for you to get out from under it. I was proficient wiht, "Feuer! Feuer! rief Karlm . . ." but used it not at all in a land where fires are uncouth. Not once did I have occasion to remark that the birds sang sweetly in the garden yesterday evening, Marie. And it was in Passau that I had my first truly important lesson in German.

Passau, where the Ilz, Inn, and Danube rivers meet for the flow through Austria, has a park and promenade. With my little sack of bakeshop goodies I went on the Sunday afternoon to watch the people, bask in the late season sun, and listen to the oompah band concert. Along came a grandfather, who sat on the bench with me and spoke his routine Guten Tag. "Guten tag,"m I carefully replied , and I added, "Shurneyvetterm ."

"Ja,m " he said, and then, "Auslanderm ?"

I was back at the Hotel Eisenbahn before I realized that he had tutored me for two hours wihtout using or knowing one word of English, and my German was just about equal to a room for the night and an egg with my breakfast. We had communicated. After that I tossed off the variations of gehen, fahren,m and reisenm jauntily, something I missed "in school."

In Paris I took a diplomat to dine. He had been there six years, and was just beginning to know bonjourm from mercim when our State Department transferred him to Bogota, Colombia. He was amazed at my facility about ordering. So was the waiter. His mouth dropped open, he shuddered, and he said, "Where do you learn French like that!"m "Mo-ree-ell!" I proudly explained. And i reminded him that not too long ago Montreal had been the world's largest free-French city. Not a diplomatic thing to say, of course, but I was under no obligations to our State Department.

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