January 17, 2005


A quote from Toren, via Amritas:

.. [T]he fact is that if you speak any other language than English, and then learn English, you can go practically anywhere in the world and communicate since it is the second language of choice nearly worldwide. So the motivation value is high and the rewards substantial, plus, many countries teach it to children at an age when they can soak up an extra language with ease ...

It's just that if you're raised speaking English, one of the primary motivations for learning a second language is nullified.

Americans get a lot of crap from Europeans for not learning foreign languages. But seriously, which one should we learn? I spent ten years learning French and two years learning Swedish, and they do absolutely no good here in Germany. I still hear the joke all the time about how "a bilingual is someone who speaks two languages and a monolingual is someone who is American." Even if Americans worked hard to learn Spanish, the obvious choice in the US, they still would be looked down on everywhere but Spain. There's simply not an easy second-choice language for us, like English is for every other freaking country in the world.

If I had known when I was 15 that I would be living in Germany, I could have taken German in high school. But when you're in high school, German and French seem about equally as useful (read: not at all). And when we do come here to Germany, and we try to learn German (our beginner level German classes are always packed), Germans just roll their eyes at us and reply in English when we try to use it.

My husband came upon a poster in Iraq that was put up by the Honduran troops. He started translating the poster when one of his Hispanic soldiers said, "You can read that, sir?" My husband said that he had taken five years of Spanish and could muddle his way through the poster, but he could use some help. The Hispanic soldier looked my husband in the eye and said, "Don't look at me, I don't speak Spanish." The former-gangbanger from L.A. with the uber-Hispanic name doesn't speak a word of Spanish. I guess English works just fine for all of us.

Posted by: Sarah at 07:16 AM | Comments (10) | Add Comment
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1 Yes, I took 4 years of German and got nothing out of it except for a curious blessing whenever someones sneezes. My children will certainly be learning chinese though. 1.3 billion people can't be wong. Ok, bad joke, but I am serious about the language.

Posted by: mdmhvonpa at January 17, 2005 10:07 AM (/D3gv)

2 Facing our PCS to Germany, I really have kept it in my mind that I don't want to be one of "those" people, who expects everybody in the entire world to speak English. Especially "my" English with the most gentle hint of a Southern drawl, or even my husband's emphasized Chicago accent. We've been told by many people on post, countless times, that if you at least try to communicate in the native tongue of your host country, that most people will try their best to meet you halfway. I took Spanish in high school. German wasn't even offered! But like you, Sarah... had I known, I think I would have attempted to learn sooner

Posted by: Susan at January 17, 2005 11:25 AM (ExCyr)

3 i took latin. wtf was i thinking?

Posted by: annika at January 17, 2005 01:25 PM (zAOEU)

4 In business, though, the European who speaks several languages does have an advantage over the American who speaks only one. You're probably right that only *one* other language doesn't do that much good...but if you can manage 3 or 4 of them, you've really got something.

Posted by: David Foster at January 17, 2005 05:23 PM (MO+oq)

5 English has a REALLY big advantage over many languages (even that of my own ancestors, as pretty as it is). It doesn't have to be perfect. Accents don't matter much. Consider how many different accents you've heard mangle just the word "hello." Hallo, hello, hullo, and twangy to nasal variations. In hawaiian, "oi" and "oe" sound very different to people who grow up with a lot of dipthongs, but CONUS I have a hard time getting people to hear the "ei" sound in my name (let alone get them to pronounce it). I mean, the difference I usually hear (that they can't) is the difference between "the beloved child of heaven" and "the voice of heaven." Big difference. Other languages, especially older ones, are even less forgiving. English, especially Amerenglish, is quite the opposite. It is very forgiving. Spend some time hanging with military spouses and you'll hear english tinged with German, British Stan, Thai, Phillipino, and a bunch of others. Yet all those different, and often horrible, accents and pronounciation blunders are understandable. Gotta love it. Especially having grown up in Hawai'i. Kalroy

Posted by: Kalroy at January 18, 2005 12:28 AM (9RG5y)

6 This is exactly the conclusion I came to about Americans. Brits, on the other hand, have no excuse. I went to Germany for a year with a group from a UK university, and our employer paid for three hours a week of German tuition on company time. There were three pupils: a Canadian, a Turk, and me - not one Brit. That said, it took me a good six months before I could persuade Germans to say so much as two words to me auf Deutsch...

Posted by: Dominic at January 18, 2005 06:22 AM (uyRJS)

7 I learned Spanish, although I learned some French when I lived there, and even took a year of it in high school. If you speak English, Spanish, and Arabic, you can converse just aout anywhere in the world. I'm convinced much of the antagonism from France is due to their language no longer being the "universal language."

Posted by: Bunker at January 18, 2005 07:52 AM (cyYKH)

8 It's funny being a gringo that speaks Spanish and working around a lot of non-Spanish speaking Hispanics. Of course I do go out of my way to point that out to them. After a couple of generations, most of the youth here have lost their Spanish speaking skills. Or, and this happens a lot, they speak "Spanglish." There are three or four radio stations here that target Hispanic youth as their audience, and the DJ's talk Spanglish like this: "Es muy temprano for a choque on the freeway, but hay uno at Main street. So tiene cuidado and watch out for it on your drive to el trabajo."

Posted by: Cerberus at January 18, 2005 06:46 PM (nzIoS)

9 Reader R.K. had trouble posting this: Europeans really have little choice, but to learn another language, English or otherwise. Americans have such a range of climates and geographic areas here in CONUS that we feel little need to leave the country. Europeans on the other hand have much more limited choices no matter what country they reside in. If growing up here in the Midwest I had to learn another language to go see the mountains, chances are I would have tried harder. Or more pointedly, if I had to learn another language to go somewhere NOT at 2 deg f right nowÂ… Si! yo hablo espanol. Now having exhausted my 3 years of High School Spanish (yahÂ… same year 3 times, I had trouble with spelling and English classes too. J 3 guesses why I work in the computer industry) I read somewhere only 1 in 10 US Citizens has a passport. I couldnÂ’t find anything to back that exact number up but did find this link where someone take the number of passports issued over the last 10 years and thinks it closer to 1 in 5. I think itÂ’s on the rise as the cost of Airfare to Europe decreases. The interesting part of this will be if more Americans learn a second language or more Europeans find it more economical to know English.

Posted by: R.K. at January 19, 2005 03:50 AM (xLwUS)

10 After 1 semester of college German, and some bar-time tutoring from a friend who had lived there, I know a few phrases: -Another beer please. -Where's the bathroom? -I have no money. -I want to f*** you. -Cheers (as in a toast). -My record player is broken. What more do I need to say? Love your blog Sarah, read it every day!

Posted by: MargeinMI at January 19, 2005 08:40 AM (4tbvs)

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