Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Bilingual cities

Tomorrow, I am going to Bruxelles, and I am feeling slightly apprehensive, which happens every time when I am in a bilingual city. Which language should I address the locals, if need be?

Sometimes, like in Brussels and Barcelona, I have no choice. I speak only one language of the two, and apologetically try to convey the message 'excuse me, I am not from here, and unfortunately do not speak your tongue, of course I would learn it if I lived here, but for now, shall we communicate in French or Spanish, or indeed in any language of your choice'.

In other cases, like in Riga, I speak both languages on offer, and then I try guessing which would be the preferred medium of my interlocutor. The message here is 'excuse me I really do not mind which language to speak, please tell me what you prefer and I would be happy to oblige.'

I often wonder whether other people feel the same and whether there is any correlation between the availability of two languages and the unwillingness to talk to strangers beyond the mere necessity, which is a sad characteristic of my home city.

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