Language travellers: the pretender vs the fan

by Russell Jarvis, Travelstart.co.za

Pretenders and fans exist in all facets of life. In sports you will find pretenders everywhere. Take the wannabe golfer for example. Usually has the appearance of a pro, knows the lingo and sports a set of top-of-the-range clubs, yet only tees off a few times a year and barely makes 9 holes. This is the person who will let you think they’re on top of their game and will pull it off quite well… on Facebook.

The fan on the other hand is an armchair critic, well-versed in every technical aspect of the art of smashing the little white ball around the course. They can shoot the breeze with the best and usually have no qualms when it comes to talking to talk. They’re competent on a mashie course but realise they’re no Tiger Woods. They’re also able to see through the façade of the former and will often refer to them as “posers”.

Believe it or not the pretender and the fan exist in linguistic circles too, and these different personality traits become never more so evident than when you’re on the road.

The Pretender

Normally claiming to be proficient in French, the language of love of course, this person is a whole different kettle of self-aggrandizing fish. The pretender is a self-proclaimed, often verbose “foreign language speaker”, not afraid to make completely mispronounced gaffes, and seemingly unaware of the uncomfortable reactions his regular faux amis elicit, this gem stumbles through his travels under the impression that he is the quintessential renaissance man.

And many of us might know one. This particular character trait (flaw?) is portrayed beautifully in the 2012 Tarantino movie Django Unchained by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character – an über wealthy and brutal cotton farmer from Mississippi who insists on being called Monsieur when he doesn’t know a word of French!

I guess the only way to deal with these types is to exchange awkward glances with others present and then have a snigger about it after they’ve left the room. Even better; if you can’t string a paragraph together or if you can’t verbalize basic thoughts then rather not put it out there that you’re a Francophone, or any other foreign language speaker for that matter.

The Fan

On the flip side of the same semantic coin is the fan – probably best illustrated by my own bungle – a linguistic faux pas that happened in Bali a few years back. It was the first day of a 2 month stint of travelling and surfing around the Indonesian archipelago. I was standing on a busy Kuta street (for those of you who don’t know Kuta is Bali’s tourist hotspot – a bustling beach resort town) when a little Balinese girl approached me selling bangles, and in an effort to be friendly I attempted to strike up a bit of small talk – me speaking the Queen’s English and her communicating with a mix of gestures and pidgin.

After exchanging our broken pleasantries I asked her to demonstrate some common Bahasa phrases. She took me through the common ones such as “Hati-hati” (be careful) and, “bagus” (good). “What do you say for ‘hello’?” I asked. “Same-same”, came her heavily accented reply.

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With that I carried on down the street, quite chuffed that I was already immersing myself in the Balinese way of life and taking steps to being more than just a fan of the foreign. The first store I entered I greeted the shopkeeper with a hearty “Same-same”. He returned the salutation with an awkward nod. After this scenario played out a few more times as I made my way down to the beach, it suddenly dawned on me “Same-same” is not some exotic Balinese version of “hello” – she’d been telling me that they use the same word as us!

I could blame my calamity on jetlag, but at the end of the day if I hadn’t been so quick to “immerse myself in culture” I might have saved myself the embarrassment if I hadn’t taken the little girl’s “same- same” uttering so literally.

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