Talk the talk and fly the flag, but check which one
with Alvin Sallay
The two guys stacking bottles of water in the corner shop were conversing in Sinhalese. One guy was complaining about some girl called Lalitha to his friend. Being from Sri Lanka, it was easy for me to understand and eavesdrop, albeit inadvertently.
Out on the road, you hear snatches of everything from Arabic to Urdu. The Russians and the French are easy to spot as they order their morning cups of coffee, African voices sing in harmony with the Spanish. Guttural German and quickfire Putonghua hum over the airwaves. This linguistic United Nations is as dizzying as the London Eye must be to those suffering a fear of heights.
Yet it was the presence of this potpourri of languages which helped convinced the International Olympic Committee to choose London as the host city for the 30th Olympiad of modern times. Sebastian Coe and company won the day when they told the judges seven years ago that if London was awarded the Games, every visiting athlete would feel at home.
Coe said: 'Every country which turns up in London will have a home crowd.' It was a persuasive argument and it helped win him the day. The 204 nations, territories and protectorates which marched out at last night's opening extravaganza can rest assured their countrymen will be there to cheer them on over the next couple of weeks.
The cosmopolitan nature of this city lends it a certain charm. Hong Kong has it to some extent but it is magnified in London. Yet, at the end of the day, to integrate, all Londoners must learn the Queen's English.
Language is the DNA strands of civilised society. And at these Games, organisers are going to great lengths to make sure the fan is catered for.
Take rhythmic gymnastics, for instance. This is one of 12 sports and disciplines where fans can buy a headset which will enable them to listen to explanatory commentary on what they are witnessing. It is an experiment and being tried out for the first time at the Olympics after London organisers found out people craved a better understanding of what was happening before them. And the best way to do that, obviously, is to get an expert to tell them the ins and outs of the sport.
For GBP10 (HK$121) you can buy in-ear commentary at gymnastics, athletics, rowing, mountain bike, judo, canoe slalom, BMX, fencing, table tennis, rhythmic gymnastics, badminton and wrestling. No longer will you wonder why the fencer is taking the piste out on his opponent or why some judo throws result in a waza-ari and why others win you an ippon.
Rugby union, with its complicated laws, uses the 'ref-link' where the viewer is directly patched to the referee's microphone and can clearly hear why a penalty was given at a scrum. It is this sort of benefit which inspired the organisers to go hi-tech.
But it will not be of any use if you cannot understand the commentator - 11 of the sports having native British speakers, barring athletics, which has a Canadian as the lead commentator. Locog, the organising committee for the London Games, was dead against a North American voice giving the spectators the rundown but had to give way to the demands of the International Association of Athletics Federations.
The IAAF has a specific regulation which allows it to select the in-house announcers for athletics. This left Locog no choice but to concede. But it worked very closely with the Canadian broadcaster to ensure the proper pronunciation of names, for instance.
Language and nationality can be a thorny issue. The flap over the Korean flag gaffe goes to show how prickly people, or in this case countries, can be when it comes to nationalistic matters. Someone in London who didn't have a clue about North or South Korea, and cared less, had sent a video displaying the South Korean flag to be played at the stadium in Glasgow where the North Korean women's team were due to take on Colombia.
It left plenty of red faces among the organisers, who since have been abjectly apologising. If one flag drama wasn't enough, the Games got its diplomatic knickers in a twist again, this time with the aggrieved party being Taiwan.
The Taiwan banner was removed from a display of 204 Olympic participants' flags in the heart of the West End of London. Why? Because of fears that it would upset China.
This was a case of the British being overly sensitive. They have to be, for the British government is wooing big business in China and using the Olympics as an excuse to cosy up. Prime Minister David Cameron already expects a ?13 billion bonus from these Olympics over the next few years. Over the next few days, the government is hosting a series of conferences to drum up investment, and China is the big prize.
So why run the risk of annoying them by allowing a red and blue flag from the island across the straits to be put boldly on view? Flags, like languages, must be dealt with delicately.