Richard Smith feels the shame of the monoglot

Richard Smith

Today I feel deeply the shame of a monoglot. I’m at a meeting in Guatemala, and the organisers of a meeting of perhaps 200 people have had to hire two translators—for the benefit of me and one American. And tomorrow he departs, meaning that the two translators will be working just for me. How pathetic.

I did speak at the meeting twice—so the translators were also doing English to Spanish. But probably many of the audience could understand me, especially in my slow, slow, resonant way of speaking with most of the vernacular stripped out.

Last night I had dinner with a Guatemalan, a Mexican, a Colombian, and an Argentinian, which sounds like the start of a joke—and I did learn that “an Argentinian is an Italian who lives in Buenos Aires is English speaks Spanish and dreams of being French.” Again, all the conversation had to be English with the occasional aside to the waiter to haggle over the wine. I always say in these very familiar circumstances that people should feel free to speak in their own language—but mostly they don’t.

Not so long ago I went to a meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences where everybody in the meeting of 50 was Dutch apart from me—and yet everything had to be conducted in English. More recently I taught a course on how to write a case report in the Netherlands to a wholly Dutch group—and again everything had to be in English.

I’ve had this experience all over the world—in Italy, all the Nordic countries, China, Portugal, Tunisia, Japan, Germany, many other countries, and even France. French is the only language I can have a go at. But my “O level Franglais” doesn’t get me very far.

Only in an Anglophone country can a person have 22 years of education, not speak a foreign language, and not be thought a fool. I studied Latin for two years, giving it up for geography (something thought very odd), and French for five. Having never been abroad, I arrogantly couldn’t see the point of learning French—and did worse in my French O level than in any other subject. Now—rather too late—I realise that speaking the language is a key to the culture, and much that I might travel the world and read Flaubert, Lampedusa, Marquez, Tolstoy, Mann, and similar great writers in translation I’m always missing something, probably a lot.

But is it irredeemable? Sadly, I think it is. The bit of my brain that should learn languages doesn’t seem to work very well; so much so that it can take me years to learn to pronounce successfully a new foreign name. I called my friend Deyan Diane for about a decade. When I went to Venice for two months six years ago I tried teaching myself Italian and got no further than “Sono editore.” And now I’m not.

This easy admission of defeat is also pathetic. If I’m abandoned in a Mayan village this afternoon, then I will learn at least one of the 23 distinct languages descended from Mayan within months. Need will overcome arrogance.

I am proud, however, to have a son who speaks fluent Spanish and German and loves to test his Russian and Portuguese. I’d love to see a generation of British health pundits like me who could speak at least one other language fluently—and Spanish seems the best bet.