When in Rome?

This is a post that has been knocking around in my head for quite some time, but one of those I just never got around to writing. In light of recent political thangs, I was reminded of it...but suddenly a bit reluctant. I don't want this to come across as a post about a particular candidate, because it isn't. It is, however, about a phenomenon I've witnessed for years and it really makes me twist off. So here you go!

Let me start off by telling you a little bit about myself: I studied French for over eight years...all through high school and college. That's for a solid eight years, not intermittently during that time period. After I graduated from college, my roommate and I instituted "French Sundays" and we only spoke French on those days so that I wouldn't get too rusty.

That same roommate also taught me some of her native Portuguese. And a bit of Spanish.

In my twenties I also enrolled in German classes at a local community college.

When my son was of preschool age, he showed a strong interest in learning Spanish...so I enrolled him in a program for little kiddies and their mommies. It was great for both of us. All three of my children either have or will learn non-native languages...I firmly believe it is not only a wonderful academic exercise but also a key to understanding other cultures.

Plus I just LOVE how it feels to articulate myself in a new language. It is uniquely thrilling.

So with that caveat, I must say I take great offense of this notion that we Americans are backwards and unenlightened because so many of us don't speak a second or third language.

I've been extraordinarily fortunate to have spent a lot of time in Europe. As I looked forward to my first time in France, I was thrilled to be able to buck that stereotype I'd been taught all of us ugly Americans deserved. I was going to take my pretty damn good French vocabulary and accent and WOW them in those French-speaking countries. Plus I would use my rudimentary Spanish when I could! And maybe I'd just speak French all over Europe and be super awesome!!!

Guess how many times that happened? Let's see...once in Provence a B&B owner kindly indulged me. That's all I can remember. Oh, no wait...their was the bartender in Paris who totally mocked my accent. That's a funny story for another time. Remind me, 'kay?

Sure, there were other times that I got to flex my linguistic muscles, but what usually happened was as soon as the first French (or Spanish) syllables were out of my mouth, whomever I was talking to would wave their hand and say (usually with a polite smile or wink, sometimes with an impatient roll of their eyes), "That's okay, let's speak English." It was disappointing, but whatever. I got over it.

When two Europeans from countries with different languages get together, guess what they usually speak? English. Because, the thing is...English just happens to be, for whatever reason, the default language. On the internet and in real life.

If you live on the border of Italy and Austria, there's a geographic imperative that makes learning more than your family's native language tongue a highly valuable skill. We simply don't have that in the United States.

I would LOVE for there to be languages taught in our grade schools from Kindergarten on. For what it's worth, I'd also love for there to be art, music, and PE, to name a few. I'm supplementing my kid's education with foreign languages. And art and music and PE.

My point is that I'm sick of being told we should be ashamed of our ugly, unenlightened, and inferior nation because we travel abroad and speak English. I know there are those who fit that stereotype, but for the most part I think it is an unfair characterization.


  1. Man, you rawk.

    Foo-say Paaaantz

  2. Anonymous5:41 PM

    I have been in Europe many times. Especially Germany, in really really little small towns out of the way of the tourists, so I would try to speak my little bit of German in the markets. If I asked, "Sprechen sie English?" I often got the response, "Nein, Kleiner", (No, a little), and then would proceed in a conversation in perfect English with that person. They all knew at least some English, sometimes better than Americans! I never had a problem in Europe speaking English, in any of the countries that I visited, and that was a lot of countries.

  3. Really interesting post. I'm Canadian but I've always found it ironic when I hear people insulting Americans on the basis of what are essentially completely ignorant stereotypes. Methinks sometimes people need to look in the mirror.

  4. Ah, I had the same experience when I was stationed in Germany. Knowing English is a big boon in business settings for the Germans, so they really wanted to practice using it rather than hearing us bumble along in "Gausthaus" german :)

  5. You know what...I agree 100%! Came from Twitter btw:)

  6. Bolshoi spasseebo for this. (I took Russian as my primary language, and sadly, the Cyrillic alphabet isn't bundled in Vista!) ;)

    Basically, I just detest (again every candidate has his/her attributes/opinions that annoy me, so no direct finger pointing) sweeping, entire group encompassing assignations. Plus what ever happened to accentuating the positive?

    Hey gas prices are down in my 'hood! There's something!

  7. And when I lived in Southern California, Spanish was the most important language to know. I knew plenty to get me through a day or two across the boarder. In fact, I can still understand about half of a conversation. BUT...that is the only country I have been even near in which a foreign language is spoken.

  8. My 4 yr old has had spanish classes in preschool since he was 2. My high school grad with two years of Spanish asks him for the names of things. Difference between private and public education? or has the importance of learning a second language finally gotten through?

  9. I don't know the back story to this but how COOL is it that you know all those languages! I took Italian in middle school because it was that or French. My kids learn Spanish through Dora. That's about it. My kids will have the choice if they want to learn a 2nd language, but hell, as long as they learn OUR language, I'll be happy. Still better than all the ppl in this country who can't speak English, never mind anything else.

  10. I have no idea what political thingo you're referring to since I'm not American. But to be fair to Americans...honestly none of you are really that bad in language.

    Having quite a few American friends who are keen on learning all the languages I speak, I think the problem just lie mostly on accent. Americans can't seem to get their head around changing their inflections, for some reason.

    I speak Malay, Indonesian, Mandarin, and Japanese and in all those languages my American friends have no problem understanding me perfectly. It becomes a problem only when they reply to me in that language and I get confused because their pronunciation and inflection are wrong. However, if we were talking online, for example, they are more than capable of carrying the conversation fully in foreign language because I'll read it as I speak it. The point is, my American friends have no problem reading or writing romanized foreign languages.

    A quick chat with my Spanish friend here (I'm in campus's computer lab) reveals the same thing. Americans have no problem understanding Spanish as spoken to them or as written but have trouble speaking it to a Spanish speaker because a Spanish speaker does not understand their pronunciation or accent.

    Sorry for this long comment! I thought I should give a fair foreigner's opinion on Americans ability to hold foreign language. It's not ignorance, inferiority or stupidity. It's just like a Chinese speaking English in a Chinese-heavy accent. They are understood because we're used to it. The opposite is not the same however. For example, we're not used to Chinese being spoken in an English-heavy accent..er, if you know what I mean. I don't know how else to say that properly.

    I'll stop here before I bore everyone.

  11. A-MEN. Okay, so I have never been to Europe, but I hate it when people think all Americans are stupid when they go to another country just because they don't speak the language. Yeah, English is pretty universal! And besides, are we supposed to learn every single one of the European languages just so they can make fun of us because they speak better English than we do their language?
    Anyways, go to central/south America. They will appreciate that you speak their language. Trust me! ;)

  12. my in laws and I fight all the time about something similar. they think mexicans should all learn english if they become citizens here. I say -- maybe WE should learn spanish! and every other language we can...

  13. EXCELLENT POST...my problem is not that Americans speak English overseas, it is that they EXPECT everyone to speak English. I am first generation American. My father has a heavy Italian accent and my mom is from South America with a slightly less obvious accent. These two, with no more than a 5th grade education, speak three languages. I have witnessed too many times to count, "Americans" looking with contempt at my father as he tried to speak English.

    Then, when overseas in Europe, I have seen too many Americans (certainly not all!) walk head first into small shops in small towns and start blurting out regional English and then become frustrated when they are not understood!

    Your point stays the same and is completely valid. Americans no more deserve that stereotype than the French deserve the reputation that they are rude. But sometimes they do...[wink]

    Excellent post. thank you!


  14. Great post!

    While I think that everyone should attempt to speak the language of the country you are in, I find that English seems pretty universal and you can almost always find someone who speaks it.


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