How to order a coffee in American
My trip to Mexico was another linguistic challenge. Pride coming before a fall, I thought that if I could read Spanish (…well, Spanish books on Roman religion, at any rate), I could speak it too.
In fact that wasn’t too far from the truth. Although the husband accused me of just speaking loudly in a bastardised form of Italian, I was quickly pretty confident in saying, “dos margaritas, sin sal” (“two margaritas without salt” as we have it), and the like. The problem was understanding what on earth was said back.
This is almost always how it is with foreign languages. It’s easy enough to muster enough German to say: “Wie komme ich am besten zum Bahnhof”. But, unless you can understand “turn sharp right at the abattoir, then half left just after the war memorial, and you’ll see it on the other side of the roundabout”, you might just as well not have bothered.
But it’s not just in foreign languages. A few months in the USA made me think that a lot of successful human communication, even English to English, depends on knowing in advance what your interlocutor is likely to say back to you. It means knowing the script in advance, in other words. Try to order a coffee in Los Angeles, and before you get a nice steaming latte, you will have to have given a series of quickfire answers to a whole load of unexpected and quite un-British responses: “Regular?”, “Half-and half?”, “Long or short?”. More than once I was left as baffled as if the “barista” had been speaking a half-understood GCSE language.
It made me wonder if there were two versions of English learning text books the world over – the UK, and the US version.
And what would one of those “at the coffee shop” learning dialogues look like in each?
Waitress: What can I get you?
Mary: A chocolate muffin and a coffee.
Waitress: Black or white?
Mary: White, please.
Waitress: Be right with you.
Waitress: Hello, I’m Cindy and I’m your waitress for this afternoon. In addition to what you see on the menu, we have a special of delicious wholemeal English scone and full cream. What can I get you?
Mary: A chocolate muffin and a coffee please.
Waitress: Would you like the organic chocolate muffin, or the regular?
Mary: Organic, please.
Waitress: Our organic cocoa beans are from Guatemala. Is that all right for you?
Mary: Don’t you have anything from Africa?
Waitress: Not organic I’m afraid.
Mary: OK, Guatemalan is fine.
Waitress: And the coffee? Latte, cappuccino, espresso..?
Mary: Latte, please.
Waitress: Half and half?
Mary: No, I’d prefer no-fat, thanks.
Mary: No regular would be fine.
Waitress: That’ll be right with you, and if there’s anything else
I can get you . . .? Have a nice day.
I’m not claiming that one of these is better, more nuanced, brisker than the other. It’s just that I’m still not quite sure I’ve mastered version 2.