This is a post I wrote years ago and am reposting. (It’s okay, no one has read it.) But I’m in the middle of trying to sell a house and move across the country sooner that planned when I don’t even have anywhere to live yet. How’s that for fun? It’s not. Not fun. At least I have a job now. A few days ago, I didn’t have that either. Good times.
There’s an old joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Five languages? A polyglot. And only one language…? American (or British, or Australian).
So we went to this pub one night. Me (the American), my French roommate, and the two Germans — a guy from the formerly communist East and a girl from the West. (The four of us were taking a Polish language class at the University of Lodz.) There was also the Tunisian guy, the Russian guy of Korean ancestry, the Taiwanese girl who had lived in Canada, the Swiss girl, and the Ukrainian girl. (These others were not studying Polish but lived on the same floor of the dorm for foreign students.) Oh, and at some point, somebody’s Polish friends showed up for a while.
The language of the evening was English. Always English. Everybody everywhere speaks English, it seems. You never know how lucky (or unlucky) you are to be an English speaker until you go abroad. If all you want to do is to get around the globe with relative ease, you can’t do much better than being an English speaker. If, on the other hand, you think, hey, I’d like to learn Polish (or German, or Russian, or Hungarian, or Japanese), it’s another story. Even if you go to that country where the language you want to learn is spoken, you could be hard pressed getting a chance to speak it. The first problem is that, unlike the majority of Europeans who are constantly bombarded with languages that are not their own, we English speakers aren’t used to anything but English. Our ears like foreign tongues about as much as they like buzzing insects. The second is that, as I said, everybody everywhere wants to speak English. In the words of Jules from Pulp Fiction, that pretty much makes me a vegetarian, too.
Take for example what I call “the international table” at the pub the other night. There was no one who didn’t speak English. Most of the conversation took place in English. What conversation did not take place in English occurred out of politeness, because many people present spoke a second (or third) foreign language in addition to English. For example, one of the Germans spoke Russian to the Russian. One of the Poles spoke German to the Germans. The Tunisian spoke French to the Frenchman, and the Swiss girl spoke German to the German-speaking Pole. (She also spoke some kind of weird Swiss-German mutation which the Germans claimed, somewhat ironically in my mind, “sounded like a foreign language.”) And it was only because no one from Spain was present that the Frenchman couldn’t use his Spanish. But these excursions into languages that were not English were brief. As I’ve said, the dominant language is always English.
What’s frustrating is that these others get the opportunity to practice another language when they leave home. Even when my fellow students of Polish aren’t speaking Polish, they’re still practicing English by virture of being abroad. I’m abroad, but it happens that, for me, English is a langauge I don’t need to practice. I’m pretty good with the English. In fact, I’m the one to whom people come when they feel like practicing their English.
And how did I fare at the international table? Well, I was fortunate in that one of the Poles actually had the patience to endure my barbaric and highly time-consuming attempts at constructing Polish utterances. And she was even nice enough to respond in Polish (most people get tired of me asking them to “say that again, but slowly”). I even understood a little of what she said, because she was pretty good at imitating the childlike clarity and simplicity of those people on the instructional cassettes I listen to. So hey, chalk one up for America. To quote President Dubya, I too am “literate” in a foreign language.