We English are not renowned for our ability to dazzle the rest of the world by speaking its language.
Our lager loutish football ambassadors can all too often labour under the misapprehension that all one has to do, to be understood, is to bawl louder and gesticulate beerily.
It is the worst of attitudes, and not one of which the country’s intelligentsia is proud. Clever people here book holidays abroad which are calculated to be far away from their fellow countrymen.
But is bawling English at the top of one’s voice simply safer? Translation can be a tricky thing.
In my early twenties, I was persuaded to take a trip to a monastery in Burgundy in the lazy warm days of my young Summer. The place is called Taize: it has an absorbing past.
Taize is a small village very close to Cluny: one of the great centres of monasticism, the home of Cluny Abbey, founded in 910, sacked and looted by the Huguenots in 1562. But by the time Taize’s history begins, in 1940, the glory of the old monastic traditions was gone and France was a desolate war-torn place.
It caught the eye of a Swiss brother: Brother Roger Schulz.
He bought a house just a few miles from the border between Vichy France and occupied France: it became a place where refugees could hide. But the Gestapo occupied it while Roger was away raising funds, and it was not until the end of the war that it became free once more.
Gradually it began to attract brothers and a community formed, of protestant and catholic brothers alike; and then the young people began coming. The facilities were basic, the community in the middle of nowhere; but something about leaving one’s possessions and paying attention to the inner life drew the young, with their ideals and their questions and their broad horizons.
These days more than 100,000 youngsters arrive every year to spend time away from the rat race and concentrate on their inner life. They sleep in army-camp huts and the food is extremely strange; onerous chores are done as a matter of course; but the company is excellent.
And then there’s the silence.
Built in to Taize’s life are periods of silence, when, whatever one does, one does it without speaking. Rarely in this busy modern life of ours are we afforded the chance to be quiet for a day: and the effects tend to be quite dramatic.
This did not stop me sneaking out under cover of darkness to go and find the nearest French pub.
The community of youngsters was like the aftermath of Babel. The morning air, after a bracing night in an army bunk, would be filled with languages and dialects, some harsh and fast-moving, some soft and lilting, every one plotting how to grab their sponge bag and get to the shower block, the better to cadge a shower before everyone else.
And while I do not speak Czech or Spanish, somehow I knew what they were saying. We all under the sun have the same preoccupations, when all is said and done.
The clever monks had made provision for their youngsters: there was a tuck shop of sorts, and one evening my friends and I made friends with a large affable group of Poles over some Mars Bars.
And we sat there in the dark balmy open air with the glow worms lighting the hedgerows, talking different languages together.
There was a point where they were trying to explain something and we all floundered. I forget the context but I think I remember the word: although when I look at Polish dictionaries today I can’t track it down.
The word they were trying to explain was something along the lines of decowac.
We went through the gamut of mimes and gesticulations; we stumbled through stilted English explanation and offered helpful queries: but our new friends could not for the life of them translate what decowac meant.
Finally someone produced a battered old Polish/ English dictionary. There was a studied silence while the word was found, a riffling of tiny well-worn pages. We munched our Mars Bars and waited.
The young man’s face lit up. “Ah! Here it is!” he said, or gesticulations to that effect.
The definition of decowac , he told us, was this: “To hide in a funk hole.”
None of us knew what a funk hole was. That evening, we had to be content with being none the wiser.
Later, when the internet arrived, I looked up funk hole. It means a military dugout. I suppose decowac might mean something a little like decamp.
But it’s supposition. It seems that while we can’t dazzle the world by speaking its language, there are times when we don’t know our own language well enough to translate.