I’ll Have the Language, Please

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.

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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.

33 thoughts on “I’ll Have the Language, Please

  1. I know how you feel. I’m currently studying abroad in Japan. I’ve been taking Japanese for almost 3 years now, and I’m barely at an elementary school level. I’ve incredibly intimidated by the exchange students around me. One girl I met knows 5 different languages and is embarrassed by her mediocre Japanese (which is still at a higher level than my own Japanese). Meanwhile, I have two years of lousy high school Spanish, and 2.5 of Japanese. I’m always looking for ways to try to practice my Japanese, especially around the school and in the city, but everyone is always more than willing to speak English with me (which I’m kind of grateful for). But even so, I like the challenge.

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    • It’s funny how some people who are multi-lingual are embarrased when they aren’t perfect in one of them. Puts us mono-linguals to shame. I envy you getting to study abroad in Japan. That must be a great experience! I’m sure if you keep plugging away at the language, you’ll get there.

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      • I’ve gotten really good at explaining that I’m lost and need directions at least. Unfortunately, I only have a few months here. If I can master day-to-day conversation, I will be very happy.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a tough one. I live in Spain and in the touristy areas, people still speak to me in English even though my Spanish is pretty much fluent now. It’s always a shock when that happens. I quite like the guy at the recycling station near my house who told me he wanted to speak English with me “to practice” and I was cool with that. It was a long, hard slog to learn the language though and my accent is still more Southampton than Seville.

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      • Well, Walt, I moved here in 2006 (!) and I studied Spanish on my own through CDs and books before I arrived. Once I got here I read an article about British ex-pats that called us “the por favors” in that that is the only thing we can say. That spurred me to get lessons and I took quite a few courses to get my Spanish up to a good level. It was hard work though and I’ve still got a lot to learn today. I love it though I’ve given up on the idea of ever being able to roll those Rs.

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      • In some parts of the U.S., Spanish is very common. As you get closer to the southern border, Spanish becomes at least as common as English if not more so. Of the languages I’ve studied, Spanish seems to me the easiest to learn for an English speaker, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And maybe that’s only because I heard it more than any other growing up in the southern U.S. But the farther you get from that peak learning period during childhood, the harder it is to learn any language. Don’t worry about not being able to roll those Rs. English was my grandparents’ fourth language (after Polish, Russian, German, and Portuguese), and they never did learn to pronounce “vacuum cleaner” with a “v” instead of a “w.”

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  3. This reminds me of a time at a German Christmas market just on the French border with some French friends, and funny I thought it was that they used English to order, rather than Deutsch. And the back-and-forth kind of ‘who’s on first’ wordplay of the Germans saying neun and the French thinking nein but really it was nine, and that went around and around as we chuckled over our gluhwein and parsed out our coins. Nice post, Walt.

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    • I was in a D-Day museum once on the coast of France when there was an overhead announcement in English about the need to speak in quietly respectful tones of voice, or some such. When it was over, I heard someone obviously from England say, “What?! It’s the English making all the noise?!” That was priceless.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Moving is awful. It’s bad enough just to move. And we are being forced to move ahead of schedule, and we still don’t have a place to go! At least we are going someplace where it’s nice and warm. No more polar vortexes!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The opening of your post sounds like a joke you’d hear in the 1970s… ‘A German, a Tunisian and a Russian walked into a pub… ‘ only we usually had ‘Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman’ before some awful racial stereotype 🙂
    You’re so right about not being able to use your foreign language skills in Europe. They spot your English/ American accent before you can say ‘Drei beer, bitte…’

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    • It’s harder for us introverts and social phobes, too. It’s ironic that we don’t really want to speak to people, yet we want to be able to speak a second language, which requires a lot of practice speaking to people. There’s a couple of things working against each other there!

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      • That is a contadiction, it’s true. If only all human interaction could take place over the internet, what a sweet and happy place the world would be. We could have virtual wars – maybe Halo or World of Warcraft tournaments rather than bomb dropping and invasions. May sweet harmony reign

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  5. Hahaha every time I’m in Thailand , I try to learn a little bit of basic Thai that I can use in conversations , and the people I meet are usually very helpful. In fact, they seem pleased with the fact that someone’s making an effort to mingle with the locals and to learn their ways. Southeast Asia isn’t very fluent in English , so some local phrases do help. Hopefully next the, I’ll be able to learn Thai as it should be spoken although its easier said than done xD

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    • It’s always good to learn a few local phrases. The effort is always appreciated. It can be so discouraging though when you try to speak the language and they look at you with that look that says “I don’t understand a thing you just tried to say to me.”

      I wish you the best in your effort to learn Thai. I’m sure that’s a tough one.

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  6. Guess I’m most intrigued by the new job you have. Moving where? Santa Fe? If so, let’s meet! If not, at least tell me about your new job. I’m looking for one now. It’s hell. Resumes/letters all the time – not the writing I want to do. Reading and posts have slacked off as a result. But I’m glad to hear of your success. Good luck! ps as for languages, I’m still trying to understand English.

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    • Well, it’s not a new job, it’s a same job, just in a different place. I’m transferring with my current employer, taking a minor pay cut that will be balanced out by my not having to pay state and local taxes anymore. They have those in Ohio, the place I’m leaving, and they don’t have them in Texas, the place I’m going. So not quite Santa Fe, but closer. Haven’t been to Santa Fe, but I have been to Albequerque, which I did like quite a bit. My wife is very homesick for Texas, so we’re going home. Got to keep the wife happy, you know.

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  7. I am an American living abroad. I teach English in Venezuela. My students ask me all the time why most Americans seem to struggle so much to learn Spanish. I have explained it before, but you make a valuable comparison. Hearing a foreign language is difficult for many of us. It does sound like insects buzzing. Half the time I can’t even hear the individual words. Perhaps tomorrow I will let them read this (if we have internet). Ciao!

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    • Yes, it’s kind of a big deal when you can graduate from hearing a stream of sound into distinguishing individual words. In Spanish I can only speak simple words and phrases, but when people are speaking at least I can hear all the spaces between the words. I can even repeat a lot of the words that I hear. I just don’t understand them. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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