I wrote once about asking a bus driver for directions. He was quick and pleasant with his reply. I asked more questions, and he was just as quick and pleasant with his follow-up answers. He was extremely helpful. Or, at least, he was extremely helpful-seeming. I had, in actual fact, not the first idea what he was saying to me. I was asking my questions in English, but I was standing on a street in Antwerp, and that quick and pleasant bus driver was answering me in Flemish. He may well have understood everything I said, but his words to me were just sound.
On my way home tonight, I was reminded of that story. My bus stopped and a woman stepped up to the door and asked … something. The driver asked her a clarifying question, and the woman said … somthing. A piece of that second something sounded like “Eighth Avenue,” so the driver explained that the woman was on the wrong side of the street, that she’d have to go across and get the bus back the other direction. The woman shrugged and said something that sounded like “No English.” The driver switched to some very broken, pieces-of-pieces Spanish and explained again.
I thought this was quite lovely, especially when many people — even in this city — still believe the secret to bilingual communication is simply to speak English really loudly.
As the driver explained, the woman’s face twisted into a “WTF?!” kind of expression, the kind of look you’d get if you thought you might be losing your mind. And her face made sense because the driver — so helpful, so ready to be helpful — was speaking Spanish while the woman was speaking Russian.
After getting everything sorted, the driver shook his head. “Russian?” he said to the rest of us on the bus. “I’d never have known. When I hear someone speak something that’s not English, I just figure it’s Spanish. You know, unless you got the Chinese or something like that.”
Really? Here? In this city where we have so many languages we don’t know what to do with ourselves? Is it really possible he could think the only non-English languages spoken here are Spanish and Chinese? In that neighborhood alone I can think of twelve languages that are commonly spoken — inlcuding three different ones that would be called “Chinese.”
Like the bus driver who tried to direct me in Antwerp, this driver was so ready to lend a hand, to help the lost traveler. I really like that. It pleases me to see people ready and willing to lend a hand. Such good intentions! Where is it those intentions lead us? I forget …