17 March 2006


Nearly eleven years.

I’ve been in this country for nearly eleven years and I still can’t master the art of understanding perfectly everything that people tell me on the other end of the line when I call, say, BT, my bank, my car insurance, my mobile phone provider or Virgin Trains.

It sounds like, whatever company you ring these days, you always end up in a call centre that is in, as we say in French, Peta-ou-shnock or Trifouilly-les-Oies – in other words at the other end of the UK, in a tiny sleepy town in Scotland or Ireland (when it’s not on the other side of the world, in India for example). You always end up talking to a guy from one of these places who mumbles and speaks very fast, and who, irritatingly, doesn’t understand that the principle behind me asking ‘Could you repeat, please?’ is so that their words can be repeated more slowly and more clearly. Soooo frustrating!

The other day, I spent twenty minutes on a phone call to the bank instead of five (an irritation in itself, of course – they thought it was the right time to sell me a new product and I thought it was the right time to say, ‘Yes, go on then’) and half of that time was spent doing a sort of pas de deux, me asking ‘Sorry, could you repeat please?’ or uttering, disconcerted and flustered, ‘Sorry, I really don’t understand’, and the operator repeating in exactly the same way what he had just said.

Me, bilingual? Think again! If after nearly eleven years I still can’t understand people in these call centres, there is no hope that I ever will. It makes me sad. There is no such thing as bilingualism...

Then again, I can’t always understand a Quebequois or a Belgian when they speak French. And isn’t a Scot or an Irishman the equivalent of a Belgian, in terms of language (and of course, in terms of all the jokes that are made at their expense, in England and France respectively)? So maybe it is normal after all – accents do vary greatly, and our ear is not trained to understand them all.

Although, come to think of it, I don’t even always understand my own parents when they speak to me over the phone – yes! even in French, and no! with no specific accent. So maybe it’s just a phone thing.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s just that language itself is elusive, whether it’s the one you have been speaking ever since you were born, or whether it’s the one you have been learning for 18 years...

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