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Language Politics

Some people are skilled with languages. Unfortunately, I am not one of them.

When I was in high school, I took 4 years of Latin courses and remember almost none of them. During college I took Beginner's Italian, which taught me a bit, but hardly enough to get by if I ever travel by myself to Italy.

Before I left for Montreal last week, I was a little anxious about the language situation. I don't know any French, aside from the dozen or so common words that I memorized in the days before the trip. It turned out not to matter, since Montreal is a truly bilingual city.

Not only is French the official language in Quebec, it also seemed to be the preferred language. Menus, for example, are typically in French. At coffee shops, I was able to figure out most of the menu, through a combination of my general knowledge of coffee menus and a few words that look familiar to what I'd learned in Italian.

(from chrisinphilly5448 on Flickr)

Of course, I didn't go to a single restaurant, bar, coffee shop or store where the person serving or helping me didn't speak perfect English, which actually made me feel kind of guilty, because I was incapable of having a conversation in French, even though everyone else was capable of having a conversation in English.

It really made me consider how we approach language in the U.S. Even as the country becomes increasingly diversified with foreign speakers, how many right-wing pundits and even politicians think there ought to be one official language? How many truly believe that it's the responsibility of anyone who comes to America to learn English? And if they don't, they shouldn't be accommodated?

In some ways, it makes me feel intellectually depressed. For all the years that I've spent in school and despite the fact that I have a college degree, I can only communicate in a single language. Americans' desire to learn new languages usually stems from wanting to live or travel overseas. If the Canadians in Quebec can make English-speakers feel so welcome when they visit, why can't we reciprocate for our visitors?

Comments

Mel said…
While in Brussels, a waiter we encountered during our trip spoke some 20 languages. I was extremely jealous.

Like you, I has 4.5 years of German, but remember little (having nobody to concede regularly with). But I was surprised how much of it I remembered upon visiting Germany. A podcast certainly helped to brush up, but I'm by no means conversationally adept. I'd like to get there. Then, learn Hungarian. :)
Michael said…
Network effects. There is no clear single language Americans can learn which will handle visitors. On the contrary, people in Europe and abroad know that English is approaching universal language status due to its usefulness in various fields, such as internet/technology/science, aviation, navigation.
Ashley said…
Oh, I totally get this.

Especially after going to international school. EVERYONE spoke English and knew where my country was on a map. I felt so selfish.

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