Sunday, March 04, 2012

Why USians think we know languages when we don't

Earlier this year I posted about an unpleasant interaction I had with a Frenchman who lives in California. He scoffed at me for posting on my facebook page that I "know" French. I explained that the template for listing languages in your profile says "knows".  So don't blame me, blame Mark Zuckerburg.  It is probably more on target to say I study French.  What followed was his stubborn insistence that I was somehow being dishonest and a poseur of sorts -- pardon, poseuse. I was really exasperated by this.

I told my acquaintance that Americans are never very good at foreign languages. Partly, that is because we tend to not go abroad, and thus don't get a chance to use them in a situation where we must, and when we do, it is made easy for us to fall on English because "they all speak English over there."  It wasn't enough for him to stop emailing me, "I just don't understand why you say you know French when you don't."  I stopped replying, and he's left me alone for a year.

It has occurred to me since then other reasons Americans who study languages are usually behind their foreign peers in excellence in a second or third language.  One is this:  :Americans can never escape English. It seems to be everywhere.

One does not need to know Spanish, Russian, or Urdu, to fly a commercial jet liner. If someone from Mumbai has a business meeting with someone in Latvia, they do not speak Japanese with each other. They most likely will speak English.  English is at least to some extent a universal language. And that makes many people whose first language is not English quite frustrated; but for us it just means we think we don't need to learn anything else...or that if we do study a language, we are quite pleased with ourselves when we know enough of it to buy a baguette at the local boulangerie.

I play a game with myself when I'm in Europe (or even Mexico); trying to find some place I can stand where I can see no English.  Signs that show multiple languages are OK, but brand names, place names, and signs that just say English are right out.  The game gets harder every time I go to Europe, anyway. 

The last time I went to France, I saw a box department store.  Like Wal Mart.  It was called "Michigan!".  I went in and asked them if it was named after my state, which was once an outpost of French America at one time.  No, it was named after "the boss".  I thought it really looked sad, sitting out there in a field, in sight of several strip malls.  There is now no escaping America, I thought.  The thing that sent me over the top was a grocery store in Lille, France.  They have loyalty cards!  You know, they come in twos, a card the size of a credit card with the name of the store on it, and another card that is a miniature version of the first that you can put on your keychain. 

I expect that the next time I make it to France, it will look pretty much 100% like generica. And nothing will be in French.

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