A noodle is domestic with cheese

…and a tomato is ardent. No, I’m not quoting Daniil Kharms but the English translations on a Kiev restaurant menu.

Collections of signs and menus like these, in bad English from around the world, are an easy way to make people laugh. But, like the footage of animals doing ridiculous things which now seems to be a staple of international transport settings, they sometimes make me a little uncomfortable because I’m laughing at something that never intended to be funny and my premise for finding it amusing is that I am superior (there’s an argument that all humour is based on that premise, but let’s not get into that right now…)

Several of my books and stories feature dialogue or narrative from non-native language speakers, but I find it hard to write so that it’s believable and generally I’m very wary of it in literature. There is such a fine line between ridiculing incorrect or non-standard language usage and rejoicing in its (not always inadvertent) creativity. It’s a little like the difference between pidgin and creole; the point when a limited mastery of languages becomes a whole new language in itself.

After being laugh-out-loud amused by the first couple of chapters, I got intensely irritated by the Ukrainian narrator’s eccentric English in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. I didn’t think it shed any real light on the story or the character; it was essentially a cheap joke at the expense of all those foreigners who can’t speak English properly (needless to say, the American character in the book can’t speak a word of Ukrainian).

I admit I laughed often enough at my pupils’ mistakes when I was teaching English, but I also know what it’s like to live in another country and struggle with its language. Some days you feel like a lost ten-year-old, you feel as though you’re crossing an endless marsh, jumping from word to recognised word like stones and tussocks sticking out of the great morass of incomprehension. Some days it’s just such perilously hard work you can hardly bring yourself to leave the house to buy milk since who knows what you’ll come back with – a red face, a feeling of total inadequacy, or three litres of something completely undrinkable.

On other days, it’s a license to play, and to play the fool. I’ve made some pretty surreal linguistic mistakes myself (requesting cat soup for lunch in Czech, or a small horse to stir my coffee in Russian). Non-native speakers and writers can make such unexpected poetry. I’ve been wooed and won myself by English ‘mistakes’: how could I resist someone who calls a dung beetle a poo roller, a windmill a house with spinning wings?

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