Most of us can point to an area of personal ignorance that provides hours of social embarrassment and I'm no exception.
Try living in Spain for 15 years and still not being able to speak the language. Obviously I can manage a few useful phrases ( I can ask telemarketers whether they can speak English because my Spanish is rubbish with a fluency that never fails to cause confusion), but when it comes to holding a decent conversation I'm way out of my depth.
This doesn't fit in with any personal philosophy, by the way. Thanks for pointing out that I reflect the absolutely worst type of Brit overseas. All it would take to complete the happy picture would be a pair of socks with my Birkenstocks and a loud cry of “I'm not eating that foreign muck!” when asked whether I´d like some tapas. I frequently feel like screaming, “BUT I'M NOT LIKE THAT!” Yet how are the locals to know this?
The trouble is that I suffer from a linguistic ham-fistedness that has dogged me since my schooldays. My brain is a steaming porridge of semi-digested languages: French, German, Afrikaans, Spanish, a few words of Zulu. It's all in there – somewhere. The only language I have managed to speak with any degree of proficiency is Welsh. It's a beautiful, poetic language that is a joy to speak and listen to. Yet, if you stray beyond the confines of Port Talbot or Patagonia, it's of limited use. Additionally, having lived outside Wales since 1982, I'm now having to rely on Pobol y Cwm to keep me up to date with the latest lingo.
Yet this private shame would remain just that if I didn't keep bumping into people who collect languages the way that Posh Spice collects Hermes Birkin bags. At university my friend Michael ripped through the Romance languages at top speed, conquered Cyrillic and, by the time I met him, was learning Lakota (which is only spoken by about 6,000 people worldwide) to stave off terminal ennui.
At parties I always seem to end up stuck in a corner with some Nigel or other, who has made it his life's work to study the language of the Booroo-Booroo people of the Amazon.
“They don't actually HAVE a language as such, more a series of hoots and whistles. Fascinating stuff!”
Nigel will insist on telling me the reason for my linguistic idiocy.
“All languages have a logical structure. That's your problem – you don't have a logical mind.”
Yet we Welsh people can always call on our secret weapon. Eventually Nigel will ask me where I'm from and when I tell him he begins to look impressed.
“Welsh!” he will say. “Now that's a language to conjure with! Don't suppose you can speak it at all? God knows how you pronounce it. All consonants and no vowels.”
Then he remembers that one of his grandmothers was born in Wales. He wonders if I know the place. Oh no, there's no way he will even try to pronounce it.
“Tell you what, to avoid embarrassing myself I'll write it on a piece of paper for you.”
After several minutes of frantic scribbling and crossing out he passes it to me.
“Apologies if I've messed up the spelling,” he adds with an apologetic grimace.
I take the piece of paper from his hand. Look at it.