Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My kingdom for a Babelfish

Readers of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" will know that a Babel fish is a species that, when dropped in one's ear, allows one to instantly and completely understand all languages.  Technology geeks may recognize it as the name of the universal translator website created by Altavista and currently owned by Yahoo.  Either/both references are quite appropriate here.

Before I go any further, I need to applaud the the English language abilities of the people I'm about to discuss.  The extent of my foreign language skills at this point in my life is my ability to ask "Do you speak English" in numerous European languages. 

That said, I'm reminded of how complex English is, especially for someone who didn't grow up speaking it.  While I knew that I would be developing my inter-culture communication skills on my trip to Ghana, I had no idea how important communication would be before I even left the US.

As a native English speaker, I am turning into a bit of a Babel fish myself, providing English-to-English translations between various people for whom English is a second language.  Much like the start of a bad joke, a German, an Italian, an American and a Ghanaian are trying to sort out the details around our house in Kumasi.  In these emails circulating among the 3 GSK employees (German, Italian and American), the terms "sheets", "linens", "bedclothes" and "dressing" have all been used to describe the bed coverings that we will use for our stay.  Luckily (for the HHGG fans), the word "towel" is just "towel" for all of us.

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