“Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”
America has an obnoxious trait of believing itself to be the center of the universe, thinking that everyone should adjust to our needs, our wants; subjugate themselves to our culture. That if we’re ignorant of something, it’s because it’s not worth knowing in the first place. Now if I can be heard above the clamor for my blood I would suggest the reader examine the case of language, as in foreign language, as in not English. Consider New York City, one of the most culturally diverse places in the country, er no, in the world. Who speaks multiple languages? The foreign-born citizens or immigrants, usually. Don’t tell me you’ve never sat in the subway and listened to a group of people speaking in Spanish, French, Arabic, Mandarin, or any amount of the other colorful languages and felt a touch of envy. It’s like they’re part of a group that you aren’t cool enough to be a part of. Lets face it the average born-and-bred red-blooded white American can barely say thank you in their own language, much less anyone else’s – the vast majority of us only speak English (and a barely recognizable version at that if you want to get picky about it) despite the opportunities we have in school and in our communities .
“He doesn’t even speak English,” is the disdainful retort we’ve all heard – or maybe said – about someone who would dare exist in the grand U.S. of A without first learning the language of the masses. We look upon foreigners who can’t communicate with us as people undeserving of the honor of being American. Yet Americans are notorious for traveling to foreign countries blissfully unaware of the local language and culture – most of us don’t even attempt to learn the most basic phrases that would make our lives easier and would certainly go a long way in endearing us to our foreign hosts. We just assume that everyone else can speak at least some English, and usually, we’re right. It is equal parts awe-inspiring and shame-inducing to experience the oral skills of people from other, less narcissistic countries (and I’m still talking about language here, people). Ever been to Europe? Most Europeans can speak their native tongue and English, and often the languages of the surrounding countries. It’s not unusual for the average person to speak three or four languages or dialects fluently. Think about the advantages in business and social situations you can enjoy with this added knowledge – and conversely, think of the doors that are closed to you when you can only speak one language in a world that has over 6,700 of them.
Trust me, I know: it can be supremely embarrassing to encounter someone in a non-English country speaking practically perfect English while you stumble over a response to simple inquiries in their language. You see, they are used to our antics and our ignorance. They are accustomed to doing all the work in order to communicate with us – it’s like they don’t expect any better. Other nations are endlessly amused by our complete lack of interest and knowledge in the cultures and languages of others; it’s almost sad that we think it’s funny to mistakenly use the French word for condom (préservatif) at our host’s dinner table when we are really trying to explain how wonderfully fresh French food is due to the lack of preservatives. It’s no wonder other countries think we’re boarish, self-inflated and, let’s face it, dumb.
Within the U.S. it may appear that our rich cultural diversity presupposes a working knowledge of other languages, but that’s just another example of our over-inflation of our own value in the face of stark facts to the contrary. Truth be told, America is way behind in language education compared to other nations. Our young people go through years of language classes in school that we neither care about nor retain, and we’re suffering in the global business realm as a result. And while other countries are exposed to our media, our entertainment and our culture, we purposely shun theirs, effectively cutting off our ability to learn from and interact with the rest of the world on their terms. In a globalized world, the relationships Americans and our government have with other cultures is crucial to our (increasingly tenuous) position as a world leader. While other nations’ cultivate the skills to communicate in the English language, we seem to reciprocate with ignorance and disrespect, showing a holier-than-thou attitude by refusing to educate ourselves on other cultures and languages.
Not only is it disrespectful to others, it undermines our own capabilities as intelligent human beings. Why do we limit ourselves to a single form of expression? Why must we continue to believe, with good ol’ American conviction, that we know best? If we want to retain our spot at the top of the global food chain of nations, we need to get with the program – or we may as well say au revoir, auf wiedersehen, arrivederci, despedida, to what little respect we have left.