Saturday, 1 October 2011

"Come again?" I seem to be turning into Marjorie Dawes

Many years ago, I was mortified when a Greyhound Bus employee issued me a ticket for “Knoxville” when I’d asked for one to Nashville.When I pointed out her error, she evidently didn't know what I was on about. I repeated Nashville several times, but she just stared at me blankly. Furious, I got a map out of my suitcase and pointed to the city I wished to visit.

“Oh!” she said. “Nyaish- vyeeel.” She turned, smiling, to a co-worker and repeated the word delightedly.

I was on the verge of going off on one. How dare you not understand my English accent! After all, you expect this sort of treatment from Johnny Frog, but not from God-fearing Americans.  

But a moment’s reflection made me realise how prattish I was being. I was in the Deep South speaking in what, to the ticket lady (Travel Facilities Operative?)  was no doubt an incomprehensibly heavy foreign accent - and I had made no allowance for that. After that, I spoke to every American as if they were both deaf and mentally defective (which may have accounted for the funny looks I kept getting).

I’m sure you’ll remember the series of Little Britain sketches in which “Fat Fighters” instructor Marjorie Dawes  can’t understand a single word spoken by an elderly Indian lady in her group, despite the fact that (a) she’s speaking very clearly and (b) nobody else has a problem understanding her. 

Well, I’m turning into Marjorie Dawes, because I’m finding it increasingly difficult, when confronted by someone with a heavy foreign accent in the street, or in a shop, or on the telephone, to grasp what they’re on about. 

Having lived in London for over half a century I’m perfectly used to coping with foreign accents. Ever since the Knoxville Incident, I’ve tried my best to be patient and helpful whenever foreigners stop and ask for directions - being big seems to make me the automatic choice of the hopelessly lost. I recently spent three years working with a large number of heavily-accented immigrants, many of them only recently arrived in this country, and didn’t find it a problem. Our conversations usually took place in quiet(ish) offices and TV studios, we were all doing our very best to make ourselves understood, and we had time to get used to each other. It just needs a bit of effort on both sides.

But when I have to talk to a call centre in India, or remonstrate with an African who’s giving me a parking ticket, or try to get a Pakistani to tell me how many things I have to do to the parcel I’ve just placed on their counter to make sure it reaches its destination this side of Christmas - I’m buggered if I can understand a word!

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” “Could you please speak more slowly?” “What was the third word you said? The one that sounded like ‘marksquark’?” “Could you please spell that for me? I just can’t understand you.” “I’m terribly sorry, but this just isn’t working -  could I possibly speak to someone else?”

Despite their often exasperated reactions, I’m pretty sure I’m not being racist. Like most people approaching 60, my hearing isn’t as sharp as it used to be (it’s  never been that sharp in any case).  After all, I desperately want to interpret what’s being said to me, so I’m hardly making a point about Britain’s ludicrously laissez-faire immigration policies.

I have to go for routine tests once or twice a year conducted by a medical person who, despite having lived here for years, and despite dealing with English-speakers every day of their working life, is utterly incomprehensible - not helped, admittedly, by their habit of listening to pop music on a transistor radio while taking one’s blood or testing one’s reflexes. To me, that’s simply taking the piss. Why the bloody hell am I - and no doubt almost all of the patients she deals with - having to work so hard to understand someone who can’t be arsed to make themselves understood?

Why do GPs, hospitals, shops, post offices and companies with call centres - and BBC comedians - expect us to put up with this without complaint? 

I’m sure someone out there is itching to tell me that the same thing could be said of having to deal with Britons with certain regional accents (Geordie and Glaswegian, for example). But I’ve never had to deal with a native-born Briton in similar circumstances whose utterances I couldn’t decipher. I presume that’s either because, if their accent is impenetrable, they can’t be turned down for a job without their would-be employer being accused of racism, or because most regional Britons have two accents (and two vocabularies) - one for home use, and one for public consumption. I’m not sure many of those who bamboozle me when I’m going about my daily affairs are actually capable of speaking English more clearly. And while employers remain too lazy or too scared to turn them away, there’s absolutely no necessity for these employees to improve their communications skills.

No wonder we’re all so ratty these days!

Here’s four things which might help de-rattify us. First, employers should be given immunity from prosecution for refusing to employ anyone who has to deal with the public on the grounds of incomprehensibility. Second, insist that all British companies repatriate their call-centres and locate them in Scotland (they’re good on the phone, the Scots, and it’d give them something useful to do). Third, implement Bristol MP Chris Skidmore’s excellent recent proposal to stop councils spending up to half a million quid a year on interpreters and  leaflets in every language under the sun in order to deal with immigrants.

Lastly, spend the money saved on leaflets and interpreters on classes to teach immigrants how to speak English so that the people who already live here can understand them. The only recent immigrants I know personally all make a huge effort to get up to speed.  I don’t see why we shouldn’t insist they all do.

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