In the years 2000-2013, I was a high school teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language). Most of my students were eager to learn English as best they could, but trying to compete with their high-school aged, English-speaking peers was extremely taxing, and there were times when learning the English language seemed like an impossible task. I did what I could to convince them that learning English, especially in a world that is turning to English as the “universal language,” was a worthwhile endeavour.

I told my students about how a Spanish-speaking, world-traveller and chaperone I had met told his Spanish-speaking students that learning English was essential for world-wide travel. Mandarin may have more speakers than English, but it is concentrated in China. The large number of Spanish speakers is similarly concentrated, mostly in South and Central America. The chaperone said that he could even go to very remote African or Asian villages and find someone who knew at least a smattering of English. So learning English was important.

Then I would tell my students the bad news. English has well over a million words in its vocabulary and that due to the sponge-like nature of English, which accepts and uses foreign and technical words quickly, its vocabulary was growing rapidly. But knowing even as few as 50,000 words or so, one can get along just fine.

My recent trip to Venice with my girlfriend bore out the truth of what I had been saying. In tourist-savvy Venice, most signs and menus are printed in Italian, English, German and French. Most waiters understand the words that are printed on their menus regardless of the language. But I was intrigued to observe a few instances that signalled the predominance of English.

Firstly, even street vendors and beggars seemed to know some English. I noticed that Japanese and Chinese tourists all used English in their dealings with Venetian service people. Perhaps the most surprising thing happened one evening when I saw a six-person German family sitting down to dinner. They were all talking, as six people will, in animated voices with each other, in German. But when the Italian waiter came to take their orders, they all switched to English to ask about the foods and to place their orders!

While we were in Venice, we did the best we could to show our intention to respect the Venetian/Italian culture. We learned a few polite words of thanks, welcome and please. Fulfilling a bit of pre-trip advice from a friend who had once lived in Venice, I even somewhat proudly ordered, “caffé coretto grappa,” on two occasions.

But the limits of a waiter’s English were tested one night when we had eaten in the Laguna Bar Gelateria along the Zattere.  We commented on the noticeably fine quality of the paper placemats that had been provided. He and the owner of the bar/gelateria teamed up to provide us with information about the paper. For that explanation, they resorted to French to explain to us that the paper that had been made from corn husks. In attempting to describe it, they used the word, “maize,” which they pronounced as “mize,” that sounded very much like “mice.” My gal commented with surprise and some shock to think that mice might have been used to make this paper, until I offered the maize-to-corn interpretation for our linguistically struggling group. We all had a laugh at that one.

We sampled much while in Venice. Going from the informal (gelateria) to the ultra-formal, Tedeschi Department store that overlooks the Rialto Bridge. I thought it was odd that the Rialto area, which is most often teeming with tourists, did not result in an equally crowded store. We went in to see the top floor art exhibit and while we were in the store, we did look briefly at a purse costing €2300, or $3450 CDN.

It was easy to sense the money-culture separation from the Rialto crowd as soon as one entered the premises of the posh store. Every thing and every person connected with the store exuded either money or refinement and there were far more sales and security personnel on-hand than there were customers. Items for sale were displayed each as its own separate work of art and not a price tag could be seen anywhere – a salesperson had to be asked for the price. I enjoyed seeing the store in operation, but on an afternoon that followed a morning of schlepping around Venice in my chocolate-gelato stained blue jeans and perspiring too freely in my coming-untucked, blue chambray shirt, I felt more than just a touch out of place.

Venice for a week was quite the experience for this boy from “the block.”

This posting has concentrated on language observations and on a bit of money-culture shock. Other postings will follow.

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