The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, March 13, 2003  

The Unappreciated Two-Way Street of Languages

I'm not a linguist, not by profession anyway. I'm not even an amateur linguist. But languages are to me what jigsaw and crossword puzzles are to others. These seemingly mixed-up assortments of letters and words are puzzles to be completed, riddles to be solved, and mysteries to be unraveled. They are treasure chests to be admired and respected for their own sake.

And so, while I may never meet a Swede with whom to trade god dag's or a Netherlander with whom to swap hoe gaat het's, to mention two of my current linguistic fixations, I press on.

To be honest, my goal, aside from breaking the code, so to speak, is not to speak these languages fluently, nor even necessarily to become conversant. Rather, for now at least, I'm trying to be able to read the language, "read" being defined here as the ability to grasp a typical newspaper article. I can do so with German and Italian, and, to a lesser extent French, and, with the aid of a good dictionary, Dutch and Swedish. (I'll admit it helps to know what the article is about and to have read similar pieces in English.)

Still, there is much to be said for being able to listen to a radio report, a soundtrack, or a movie in another language and actually grasp the story, the lyrics, or the plotline. Even more to be said for conversing with a stranger. And so, while I have traveled very little overseas, I hope the time and effort I have invested in this rather bizarre endeavor eventually will pay off at least a bit. And should I be in a position to travel again, I intend to pursue that higher goal.

With that in mind, it pains me to read an article like "When Grazie is Better Than 'Thanks'," by Elizabeth Armstrong in today's Christian Science Monitor. Armstrong's article, part of a vast body of literature chastising Americans for their linguistic inadequacies, leaves me conflicted.

Armstrong, ensconced in Florence, begins with an anecdote:

The moment the pair entered the cafe, something changed. Conversations halted. Eyes darted back and forth. An elderly woman rubbed her head and sighed. Somehow, everyone just knew: The Americans had come.

The two girls struck an amusing pose, both hunched forward to ease the weight of their bulky backpacks, both dressed in cargo pants and university-emblazoned sweatshirts. But they employed a loud, commanding tone -- in English.

"What kind of ice cream is that?" one of them asked the man behind the counter. He paused. "Chocolate chip," he replied, his voice rich, deep, and distinctly Italian.

"Oh, OK; well then I'll have some of that," the American stuttered, failing to specify cup or cone, one scoop or two. But the man nodded and scooped the chocolate chip gelato into a cone. "Please," he said politely, and handed it over.

When the duo left, a few diners rolled their eyes and the cafe quickly returned to normal. But I, biting into my brioche in the corner, burned with shame.

I can empathize with Armstrong's discomfort, but not with her self-described "shame." She points, out, correctly, I think, "All it would have taken was a couple words -- or charades, for the girls to communicate without using English." And Armstrong is also correct in adding these observations:

[T]he Americans were missing out on a priceless learning experience, one that might have exposed them more intimately to the Italian people and their culture. Studying a language before going abroad, even if only for a few hours, can open so many doors. The duo either didn't know, or they didn't care, that a simple "Mi scusi, no [sic] parlo Italiano" might have been met with a much warmer reception. Or that the tiniest sign of humility might stir patience and kindness, and could even have a positive, if small, influence on the already shaky image of Americans abroad….With the wealth of language preparation available in books or online, it remains a mystery why, everywhere I went in Italy, I could always hear the Americans.

Beyond these points, however, Armstrong is on shaky ground.

Her tale is replete with the condescension typical of the genre. The American girls were "loud," she tells us, unable to appreciate that every foreign language employed outside of its customary environment sounds "loud" to other ears.

Armstrong chastises her protagonists for wearing "university-emblazoned sweatshirts" (Not Abercrombie?), without conceding the universality of such garb and the prevelance of similar affectations among non-Americans, for example, the vast numbers of (English-speaking) Canadians who seem unable to travel anywhere without stitching miniature flags on their backpacks, luggage, and jackets.

Meanwhile, Armstrong has the café patrons rolling their eyes because "the Americans" have arrived, thinking not for a moment that the arrival of two "girls" -- I'm assuming they were teenagers -- into an otherwise peaceful setting often sets the eyes of adults a-rolling.

Worse, Armstrong deploys the bastardization "gelaterias," as if her (American) readers could not hope to comprehend, in context, so foreign a word as gelaterie.

Yes, I agree, Americans who travel abroad should make an effort, a serious effort, to acquire at least a respectable degree of knowledge of the language used in their intended destinations. And they should speak that language upon arrival and throughout the duration of their visits to the greatest extent possible. This is a gesture -- more than a gesture, a manifestation -- of respect for the people of one's host country.

But last I heard the geographic population center of the U.S. was located somewhere in Missouri. Travel 500 miles in any direction from Missouri and guess what the natives speak? English. In contrast, travel 500 miles in any direction from Switzerland and what language do the natives speak? Take your pick.

Few Americans speak a foreign language well enough to communicate overseas because they so rarely have the opportunity to use what language skills they may have acquired. And when Americans who try to get along with their self-taught, cassette-instructed, or rusty high-school French, Spanish, German, or Italian are greeted with impatience, exasperation, and a quick reversion to heavily accented English that isn't nearly as good as the speaker presumes, well, who can blame them?

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