We’ve washed away the bits of road that you put in it

11. Juli 2012 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

I’m writing this a few days after the event, but I can still remember some of the dryly soothing words and phrases that the nurse at the Tongue Health Centre used. I had been thrice lucky: the weather on my first day of cycling had been great, sunshine and clouds and ideal temperatures for cycling in just a T-shirt and shorts (I haven’t seen much of the sun in the week since). The lonely roads up north and the marvellous tailwind made me feel adventurous and exuberant even, and as I had done numerous times on my trip last year, I started filming while riding, panning the digicam over the vast bleak landscapes. This was not what caused the accident, but rather that I couldn’t untangle the camera strap from my wrist as I was going downhill ever faster. So I gave the front brake a good pull with my left hand. This made me immediately topple and fly over the handlebars onto the road and away into the grassy ditch. Second time lucky: nothing broken, nothing sprained, just a bruised elbow, which, however, was bleeding profusely. When I later washed my glove, it gave off a red sap that might have been fit to make the Scottish specialty, blood pudding.
I gathered my wits together and poked for my first-aid kit. None of the ten or so car drivers who passed by deemed it necessary to stop and help. But I managed to patch myself up and rode on for another hour and a half to the next and only village in these parts of the Highlands, Tongue. To my surprise, I found out at the reception of one of the two small hotels that there was a health centre, and the third stroke of luck was that I arrived there 15 minutes before it was due to close for the weekend. The doctor was on her way off, so she left me in the care of the nurse, who did a sterling job with what she kept on calling ‚modern fabrics‘.
Her no-nonsense but gentle approach and her soothing banter gave me a feeling of being in very good experienced hands. While she was looking for the steri-strips, I was thinking of the linguistic side of things. The whole episode might have gone on without any words, but there was a continuous stream of language. Of course, I had few problems explaining my predicament in English and understanding her Scottish-tinted talk. But how would a beginning learner of English cope in such a situation? What would he make of sentences such as „We’ve washed away the bits of road that you put in it“?
You’d never find phrases like these in phrasebooks for tourists, and they don’t have a very clear purpose with respect to an emergency situation. There is mild irony here (indeed, hyperbole, considering the ‚road‘ bits), a signal by the nurse that the patient has understood that the injury is not too serious. The medical ‚we‘ is not unjustified as I had helped her in the washing process. But for a listener who would not be capable of getting these undercurrents, it wouldn’t matter much, because c’est le ton qui fait la musique, after all. The woman’s tone said it all with its reassuringly undramatic melody.
What the scene really reminded me of was that occasion at the end of a teacher training course which served the purpose of initiating secondary school English teachers to our Voices materials, based on a hands-on task-based approach. One of the central tenets is that the pupils communicate about interesting topics in the here and now of the classroom situation, topics which have an educational value and are tied to the pupils‘ life concerns. The teacher asked, with a tone of apparent exasperation: „But when do they learn how to shop?“ She meant how to conduct a shopping conversation, and I went into my routine of asking her when she had last had a conversation with a shop assistant in a supermarket, and why she thought that tourists always manage to feed themselves even in linguistically exotic territories. Well, no, I wasn’t this sarcastic, but I could also have told her the small episode at the health centre in Tongue, where even the most tongue-tied of her pupils would have had immediate communicative success, had he just stuck the bloodied bandages at the receptionist. If he would have understood the bit about the bits of road, I’m less sure. But he would have learnt a valuable cultural lesson about free health care for all in one of the remotest corners of Europe and about sober Scottish kindness.


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