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Dominant Language

by on June 20, 2011

It is so easy, when traveling to another country, to fall into the habit of speaking English.  I remember using English with a Hungarian in France, and English in Israel, and English all day long.  I spoke English in China – more Chinese speak English than do Americans – until the street merchants, noticing Americans, encouraged us in English to buy their goods, at which time we switched to French.  However…

That’s about the extent of my semi-fluent linguistic abilities, and I’m losing even that.  I last studied French in high school, which has been a good seven years.  I’m trying to read Le Vimomte de Bragelonne, byDumas; you can guess by the title that I’m reading it in French.  I recognize the words, but gathering a real meaning is difficult, at best.  It has been too long since I studied French, and the intricacies of the book are being lost on me.

I’m no Colonel Chamberlain (yes, I know he was a brevet major general) – he spoke Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac fluently, not to mention English – few of us are, but it is disappointing to contemplate my (our?) lack of linguistic ability.  I know a few scattered words in many languages fairly well – French, Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Norwegian, Dutch, Chinese, Arabic, and Farsi – but I have not learned any of these languages well.  The closest I have come is French, which my attempt to read Dumas proves I’m losing.

My grandfather immigrated to the U.S. at around age ten, fluent in five languages.  This is a normal state of affairs for Europeans, and unheard of for Americans.  Americans are in a hard position, linguistically.  Besides those who are stubbornly xenophobic and think that only American English should be spoken in America it is hard to know what language to learn.  When I chose to study French in high school, I was in school in Southern California, which, beyond all stereotypes, really is a place where Spanish is more useful than French.  I wasn’t going for useful, though; I just picked a course to study and stuck with it.  However, what language do we Americans really pursue?  Besides the Spanish that’s useful in much of the South-Southwest, we don’t have much use for ‘foreign’ languages.  To develop respect for other cultures, we have to learn other languages, and to learn other languages we have to be interested in other cultures.

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