Tuesday, May 15, 2007


I recently went to see my aunt and uncle for the day. My grandmother is staying with them, and another uncle had recently flown in from Australia for a business conference. It was the perfect opportunity to see everybody. My little sister and I joined them for a gigantic Sunday lunch in one of those pseudo-pubs with mock Tudor beams and fake hollow books. It was lush back at home, sitting in the warm, hearing the rain batter against the flat roof, drowsy from too many Yorkshire puddings. And then somebody thought it would be a good idea to play Articulate.

Articulate is a board game, where, rather like Pictionary, things are categorised (people, place, action etc), and it is your job to describe them, without actually saying the word. The more items you successfully describe before the sand in the wobbly plastic egg-timer runs out, the quicker your progress around the board. So far so good.

We drew lots. My younger sister, my aunt and her husband were all in the same team. I was in a team with my uncle from Australia and my grandmother. So far, so good right?

Well, kind of. But although I can tell my grandmother I’m okay, that I love her, and she can tell me if she needs anything, we cannot have a conversation with each other without somebody continually translating because we cannot speak the same language. I can tell my grandmother I am happy, but if I tell her why, somebody else must be there to translate for me, inevitably one of the many matriarchs in my life, who I suspect may sometimes add their own spin on my responses, judging from the sideways looks and spontaneous outbursts of laughter they often exchange. Of course, I will never know, because my mother never taught me, or my sister, her mother tongue.

My visiting uncle from Australia basically speaks the same language as my mum, aunt and grandma. Ish. But his is a purer version, as my mum’s family are third generation immigrants in their home country, and therefore they speak a bizarre mixture of languages that is perfectly understood in their country, but less so in my uncle’s. This means that even he does not speak the same language as the rest of my family, including his wife, yet another of my many aunts.

This makes playing a game based entirely on language, where the only available translator, my aunt, is on the opposing team, slightly frustrating. A quarter of the way around the board, after my grandmother had escaped from the table without a word’s notice, we universally admitted defeat.

My aunt, living in England and married to a very English Englishman rues my mum’s decision not to teach us how to speak to her. We talk plenty, too much perhaps, in English. But it would be great to tell her something more than ‘please sit down’ or ‘you’re a puppy-dog’ (an endearment) in her tongue. Somehow, I think it would bring us closer, even though we’re joined at the telephone already.

My mum always maintained that it would be too confusing to teach my sister and me how to speak her language, steeped as we were in half-hearted French and pretty good Spanish. But I would gladly swap the ability to understand the swear words in La Haine or order octopus in Madrid (which is about all I can do now) for the chance to speak to my grandmother on my own terms, to be able to at least try to explain who 'Liv Tyler' (people) is or what it means to be 'captivating' (action/adj), so we could make it round that damned Articulate board together.


At 17 May, 2007 09:45 , Blogger Philippa said...

I was falling asleep doing the washing up with this on in the background so I don't have anything interesting to say about it, but you might: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/theessay/pip/r483l/

It pointed out a few things I had always thought about being bilingual, in a more concrete way than I could (even having listened to the programme).

Tea/wine soon? xxx


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