Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Pantomime overcomes foreign-language barrier

It’s no wonder that my friends from England insist that I speak American — not English. And I often have to ask them to repeat when we talk. One semester of college French and five years of Latin didn’t prepare me for speaking anything except Missouri "farmer talk." We speak our own language, therefore my travels have put me in some unusual situations. Only in China did we have the help of interpreters.

In Newfoundland our family disembarked in a barren village, needing something for our seasick child. There were no stores, as we know them, but we found a sign in one home that said, "Coca Cola." I didn’t have to be taught to pantomime seasickness to a man who spoke their kind of English. It was "Dutch" to me!

I hurried to the car with the bottle of pop, wondering if we’d be safe in this land where we saw no other cars, no trees, no street signs or stores. In fact, we changed our reservation and shortened our stay. What a mistake! We loved the place and have returned twice, one time to bicycle 500 miles and return by freighter — a fantastic trip. Their choppy, rapid-fire jargon soon made sense to us. It was their way of speaking English!

In China, our group of sixteen cyclists had one male interpreter and one who was available to us seven gals at night. She was from Hong Kong and spoke American English. When another woman hit my bike from the rear and sent me sliding on a muddy blacktop road, both interpreters walked with me to the "hospital" the next morning because some cinders had gone deep and I had pain in the back of the rib cage

The Chinese doctor asked "How did it happen?" The male interpreter repeated that to the Hong Kong interpreter and she asked me. My reply went to the interpreters and finally to the doctor. The doctor also wanted to know when it happened, where, and finally, "Where does it hurt?"

This relay in three languages went on for almost half an hour, all of us standing in a dark, crowded room at the doctor’s desk. The doctor took my blood pressure and wrote a lengthy report to my personal physician here in Columbia — in Chinese characters of course — and all I could read was "120/72." He put several white pills into three different envelopes and then shook my hand and said, "Now, Mrs. Gerard, for the rest of your stay in China, do be more careful!" He spoke English!

I could speak nothing in Spain, but Julie and Cindy, two of my student bike tourists, wanted to go there to try out their skill in Spanish. When the time came, they were too shy to speak a word! Mina saved the day because she was a great mimic. When we wanted to borrow an alarm clock, Mina pantomimed "alarm clock" and the woman immediately produced a clock.

Our language problem on a family trip in Germany was not as easy as that. Chub had a migraine headache and was resting in the back seat of our VW van. Near midnight we stopped to talk to a couple on a side street. Neither of the people understood English. Their young son stood patiently waiting. My friend "Petie" Davison asked in French. That was no better. Then the mother turned to the boy and he said, in grade-school English, "That corner, left, three, hotel." We found it. I began the pantomime and finger counting with a woman at the desk. "Five," I said, pointing to Jimmy Davison, Walt, Nancy and us two women. "Husband sick in van." I pantomimed that and continued, "Bed. Go to sleep?"

The woman smiled and said, "Yes, but please speak English."

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