If knowledge is power, then what value should we place on covert intelligence? It is not only military chiefs who would like to have access to certain furtive conversations. We are all spies at heart, and I defy anyone to say that they have never listened in to a conversation on a bus, at a restaurant or even in their own office. The best eavesdropping is done when the target either cannot see that you’re there at all, or is certain that you can’t hear them.
Listening in is so much more rewarding when you are able to understand a language that others don’t expect you to get. I grew up in Nottingham in a Polish-speaking home, at a time when there were far fewer Poles in the UK and most of them knew one another. As a result we could travel as a family on the bus, and if my mother wanted to say something to us that was only for our ears it was very straightforward. Whether it was about the shifty man who had just boarded or the unpleasant smell that surrounded us as a result of another passenger, we were confident in the knowledge that our talk could not be deciphered.
Nowadays that knowledge of Polish is even more useful, albeit for very different reasons. If we sit in Wagamama (do they really have a Poles-only recruitment policy?) I can enjoy the chatter of the kitchen staff, the frustrations of the waiters and the banter and flirting that goes on between them all. Armed with an Indian wife, I must look like the least likely person to understand Polish and so their guard is down. Similarly in most UK hotels and B&Bs where the staff are invariably Poles, it’s easy to listen to their chit-chat, spoken in the loud voices of those who know that no-one can understand what they are saying.
In Poland too, when I have sat in a cafe and listened to British tourists getting frustrated with the staff and the staff cursing them behind the safety of the language barrier, I’ve observed with passive curiosity while having the fortune to hear both sides of the arguments.
I am very lucky to have been brought up to speak two languages from an early age. It’s so valuable to know even a few words of another language, especially when travelling through that country, even if only for a short trip. And I reckon the more obscure the language, the better. Why bother with Spanish or French when you can learn Quechua or Kyrgyz?
At one extreme of linguistic ability, you will be able to mix fully with the local Albanian/Estonian/Tajik folk and astound all as you regale them with tales of home, while at other times acting the ignorant tourist and hearing many fantastic things said about yourself. At the other extreme, even a few well chosen greetings will be enough to make sure that no-one is comfortable speaking about you in their own tongue, for fear that you know too much.