Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Können Sie Deutsch oder irgend eine andere Sprache als Englisch?

If you can read and translate that headline without using a dictionary or Google Translator, congratulations!

Today, the Washington Post is running a story about a debate going on in the Fairfax County School District over foreign language courses and whether early secondary language acquisition is "fundamental or a frill." In tight economic times, languages and the arts are generally the first to go. (Meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, they continue to have all the guns and bombs and WMD they need without holding a single bake sale or being accountable to the American taxpayer. But I stray.)

As an American living overseas, I'm a strong proponent of language acquisition for a few reasons.

1. While many in the world, particularly in Europe and South East Asia, can speak English, that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak other languages.

2. Many in the world can speak English. And French. And Spanish. And Chinese. At the organization where I work, many documents and nearly all high-level meetings are held in what are known as "The Six Official Languages": English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese. Most of the people I work with speak not only their own mother tongue, but also English, French, and one or two other languages.

3. I am constantly asked, as an American, why Americans aren't language proficient. We're often perceived as insular and uneducated, because we can't function outside of English and we come across as pushy, rude, impatient, and disgusted that others would actually deign to speak their own language and not ours! Our continual insistence that others speak English is sometimes seen as a way to compensate for our boorish lack of ability or willingness to make an effort. (Sorry to seem so harsh, but there you have it.)

4. Learning another language opens your eyes to the world around you and teaches you that the American way of seeing or doing things isn't the only way, or even the right way, of seeing and doing things. I'm not suggesting that learning French (or any other language, for that matter) will cause you to suddenly become a socialist or a political philosopher, but it will open you to a whole new way of thinking and being.

5. It's never too early to learn a language. Even as the world becomes more of a global village and less of a collection of nationalist rants, the fact is some nations will remain more powerful than others. And I'm not talking about the United States here, folks. My prediction is that Mandarin Chinese, along with English, will become the lingua franca of the world by the end of this century. My suggestion: get ahead of the curve and learn Chinese now. Otherwise, we'll really be left in the dust.


I'm glad I have some foreign language skills. It's nice to be able to walk into a store in Switzerland, pick up a package or an item and know what it is because the label is printed in German, French, and Italian. I'm literate in German, so I'm empowered.

In France, I often feel lost, because everything is in French. In France, I often feel and am functionally illiterate. It's not a good feeling. But it's one that has given me a whole new perspective on the immigrant experience in the United States. Yes, immigrants need to learn English, but cut 'em a little slack. It's overwhelming and takes time.

If I stay through next year, which is looking likely, I am determined to learn enough French to be able to read the labels at the grocery stores in France, ask for directions, and order off of a menu without then turning to a friend for a translation of the waiter's question regarding my water: Do I want it with or without gas?


Despite my obvious and painful lack of French language ability, I do make an effort to speak French when I interact with the French. I don't insist on English and, while I don't outright apologize for my inability to speak their language, I do try to be humble about it. The result is, through a bit of sign language and broken bits of English and some scattered French here and there, I end up with what I need. Ultimately, I am always grateful for their help and they're generally always glad to assist.

But that's still no excuse. Learning French is, for me, a must! And speaking German, when I'm in places where German is spoken, is practically an absolute. I'm in their country. I'm going to speak their language.

Maybe I'm an elitist, socialist, intellectual snob (I've been called worse things) and maybe I'm not making myself very clear here, but seeing the world through another language is enjoyable and humbling. It also earns me Brownie points with my colleagues, when I can show I'm able to step outside my nationalist context and be comfortable as a citizen of the world.


One thing I have learned: be careful where you use your language skills.

As I am interacting and working in French-speaking Switzerland, I often ask the Swiss "Parle vous Anglais?" If they say no, I ask, "Können Sie Deutsch?" The Swiss know one or the other or both, because they're required to learn their regional language and at least one of the other three official languages of Switzerland. English is generally a given, as well.

Asking a Swiss citizen, "Können Sie Deutsch?" is totally appropriate and is never met with incredulity or disgust.

The same is not an option in France. But sometimes you have to be stupid, like me, and learn this the hard way.

On a few occasions, when I've asked French people if they can speak English and I'm told "no", I've innocuously followed it up with "Können Sie Deutsch?"

This, my friends, is a mistake. They won't say as much, because the French are diplomatic. What they will do is give you a very firm "no" and then look at you in a way that says, "You stupid idiot. Of course we don't speak German! Would you speak German if your country had spent the last several centuries being repeatedly invaded by the German's?! Not speaking German is a point of national pride."

The only place where German is spoken in France is the Alsace-Lorraine. It's okay to speak German there. Otherwise, ixnay on on the ermanjay! I'm just sayin'...


All of that said, here's my advice to Fairfax County, if anyone is listening. Language acquisition is not a frill and it should be as fundamental as math, science, the arts, and English. It can be, and is, a key component in making us well-rounded, articulate citizens not only in our own country, but in the world.


Alles Gute und schönen Tag noch! Auf Weidersehen!

Photo copyright: D.C. Confidential, 06/09, Winstub du Sommelier, Bergheim, France.


Gilahi said...

If a person who speaks two languages is bilingual and a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, what do you call a person who speaks only one language?

An American.

lacochran said...

I couldn't agree more.

I remember Fernando Lamas saying "Don't make fun of people with accents. If they have an accent, it means they know at least one more language than you."

My mother knows 5. I, sadly, cannot say the same. But, thanks to Rosetta Stone, it's fixable.

Maya said...


Maya said...

@la: My dad also knows quite a few languages (but, of course, he's European).

Anonymous said...

Meine Liebe Fraulein Tewkes,

I habe die Glaube, dass du Francoesicshe lernen werdst. Wenn David Sedaris das lernnt, dann so kannst du.


J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Gilahi: *groan* But so true.

LA: Excellent point from Senor Lamas! And Rosetta Stone will be my savior!

Maya: Genaaaaaaau...

Phoebe: David Sedaris kann Deutsch? Meine Gute! Ich soll' seine Buecher lesen. (Kannst Du dass glauben? Ich habe gar keine Buecher von ihm gelesen. Schade. Wirklich schade.)