Archive for October, 2009

Suivez the leader
October 23, 2009

Tony Blair defined the art of leadership as “[…] saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.” (Good advice; just a pity he didn’t follow it himself). Theodore Roosevelt believed that “The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” (There is many a translation company owner out there who could learn from that wee pearl of wisdom).

Spanish Cow takes a slightly different tack – I’ve always found that the quickest way to find out if someone is a sheep or a shepherd is to listen to him singing The Proclaimers’ modern masterpiece “500 miles (I’m gonna be)”, the ditty that introduced the Scots word “haver” to millions of non-Scottish English-speakers around the world. The key moment comes just after the chorus – if your guinea pig sings along with the first “na-da-da-da”, he’s destined for a life of dribbling in front of the latest reality TV fad and snapping up the newest gadget that Apple or Microsoft decide is essential for the survival of the human race. If, however, he opts to belt out the second aforementioned “na-da-da-da”, then you may well be looking at a future Hannibal. Or Simon Cowell. Or Tony Soprano. And what a dinner party guest list that would be…


Anyhoo, what’s this havering got to do with language? Well, I was left pondering the role of leadership and assertiveness in foreign language communication recently, after a Skype chat with an old translator friend from France that I hadn’t spoken to in quite some time. We both possess roughly the same level of rustiness in each other’s lingo, but what was interesting was that he didn’t try to force ‘his’ English on me, as some fresh-from-graduation linguists have an irritating tendency to do. As I had started in French (but with a complete willingness to switch to English, should he prefer), he twigged that I quite fancied giving the ol’ skills a polish for the duration of our conversation, and duly let me blunder onward. The old rule that many language-lovers apply when choosing which language to converse in – the “we’re chez vous, so we’ll speak chezvous-ish” wasn’t valid here, as we were both shouting from the comfort of our own countries. It is, however, a sensible, logical, nice n’ simple rule to stick to, even if others don’t always reciprocate.

Conversing in a foreign language is an activity that comes complete with a pile of funny, unwritten rules of engagement, etiquette landmines and blooper bombshells, where explosive egos abound, both boisterous and bruised. There exists a certain type of linguist – be he anglophone, hispanophone or francophone – who will, without fail, attempt to take the lead and ‘force’ a language on you (never his own mother tongue, mind), because 1) he’s spent X number of years studying the damn thing, and he’s going to make sure that the evening’s tongue of choice is, well, his choice, no matter what it takes and 2) he is assertive by nature, used to getting his own way – why should the domain of language be any different?

This normally leads to a bout of swift, spoken swordplay, where only the strongest survives. If you consider yourself to possess a level of proficiency in any foreign language, you are sure to recognise this situation. It can last anything from ten seconds to three minutes. Oh, and like most uncomfortable moments, it’s really quite comical if you’re simply there as an observer, NATO-style. Jean-Louis is in Spain to learn French, but this darn Luis character that he’s just met at the gym (and who remembers a smattering of French from school) insists on speaking to him in the language of Baudelaire rather than that of Cervantes, which is frustrating for poor J-L, coz all he wants to do is practise his Spanish verbs and that tricky difference between ‘por’ and ‘para’. Every time he utters something in Spanish, Luis stammers back in bad French, until J-L gives up. On top of that, Luis is looking at him in a funny way, and keeps brushing against him accidentally…no, whoops, sorry, that’s another blog for another day.

There is an extra unfortunate element to all this, if English happens to be your mother tongue. My experience of residing in France and Spain is that, as a native English-speaker, prior expectations of you are so low that people automatically assume that you can’t speak a word and will often drop into English upon discovering from whence you originate, irrespective of their lack of knowledge or fluency. Unless you prove early on in the chat that you can claim some kind of competence, your chance of avoiding a pidgin English discussion is about as likely as Balloon Boy’s parents avoiding a custodial sentence. Or as an eagle hunting a reindeer. Bugger, bad example.

As with many things, however, maturity brings acceptance and a certain level of calm when faced with the different phenomena described above. I’m fortunate to know polyglots who have developed enough self-confidence that they no longer mind nor care what language a conversation is held in. They don’t chomp at the bit any more to show off how good their German is to native German-speakers, or to dazzle the first Tokyo-dweller they’ve met – since they lived in the city twenty years ago – with their grasp of Japanese vowel sounds. They possess an inner sense of satisfaction about the dividends that learning languages have paid them over the years and therefore feel no need to assert their ‘linguistic rights’. And that kind of behaviour, you could argue, is what true leadership is all about.