Monday, January 26, 2015

I'm American, so I only speak American

In a couple of weeks I'll be jetting off to Frankfurt for a business trip. I'll spend four days or so in Germany, and then another two in London before returning home.

This will be my second time in Germany and my third time in the UK, and I think both countries are great.

That's partly because there's virtually no language barrier in either. They invented English in the UK (though I naively like to think we in the U.S. perfected it), and virtually everyone I ran into during my first trip to Germany spoke English. Excellent English, in fact. It was weird.

I mentioned to several Germans how stunned I was at their ability not only to speak my language, but to speak it so fluently. One woman with whom I regularly work at our German public relations firm at times has no accent whatsoever when she speaks English. It's like she's from Iowa.

Generally their response is something along the lines of, "Well, we learn English in school at a young age, and of course we're bombarded by American culture and American TV shows and movies all the time."

Which always makes me feel bad. Not only that relatively few of us in the U.S. bother to learn a second language well, but that our influence is everywhere and we sort of take for granted that that's the way it should be.

A lot of Americans take foreign languages in high school, but that seems way, way too late to start. The time to start learning a language is when you're really young and you're an absolute sponge for vocabulary and pronunciation.

When I was growing up in the Wickliffe school district, everyone took French class from the time they were in first grade. In fact, I took French every year from first grade through my third year in college.

You would think that would make me fluent, but I'm not. I can read it fairly well, and I can get by in a conversation if the person to whom I'm speaking talks slowly. But I never spent any significant amount of time in a Francophone country, and therefore I was never forced to really learn the language the way you are when you're immersed in a culture and have no choice but to learn the words or be utterly lost.

Nowadays Wickliffe has gone to a more traditional model whereby the kids don't get any exposure to foreign languages until sixth grade, and even then the only choices are French and Spanish.

It probably makes more sense in today's world to learn Mandarin, or maybe even Russian or Arabic. But regardless of what language you take, there is value in the learning itself. Taking a foreign language forces you to think in new and unfamiliar ways, presumably forging new pathways in your brain and making you smarter and all of that stuff.

But I'm American, and  I will likely die knowing only how to say "Please open the window" in French and how to count to 10 in Japanese.

Which puts me ahead of about 99% of my countrymen. Sigh.

No comments:

Post a Comment