Why I continue my struggle to learn languages.
What a perfect coincidence that this post’s topic is language! This past week, I attended a diplomatic event with my “Literature and Place in Central Europe” class. The course examines the literature and identity of four Central European countries – Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Coincidently, these four countries were the host of the event, which was followed by a jazz concert. Because my teacher, Clarice Coultier, is familiar with these diplomats, she was able to get us tickets to the concert.
I was not exactly sure what to expect from the event. It was billed as a jazz concert, but also a diplomatic event. (What?!) Moreover, I feared that as an English speaker, I would miss out on any communication between the four countries, relegated to my usual role of smiling and nodding, with the occasional interjection of nemluvite anglicky,
which translates to “you don’t speak Czech.” (I haven’t learned the “I” form yet, but I am sure that the point gets across.)
Clarice is an amazing polyglot. She speaks Russian, Dutch, Czech, French, and Slovak fluently. I was sure that she would not have any difficulty following the diplomats’ exchanges, but I wasn’t so sure about myself. To my surprise, relief, and disappointment, every interaction took place in English. The four countries’ representatives gave four speeches, and they all only gave a nodding reference to their country’s language. Here we were, in Central Europe, observing interactions between four non-English speaking countries, and the lingua franca was English.
I have noticed this trend countless times, but I presumed that it was always out of necessity. Of course the Japanese tourist will order food in broken English, to the English-proficient waiter. Of course the Italian tourists will ask for directions to the Austrian in English. In all likelihood, the Austrian has a better chance of speaking English than Italian. I never expected, however, that the language of choice, between three Slavic speakers (Hungarian is not included) would be English. The three Slavic languages are all essentially intelligible. As West Slavic languages, they can be deciphered if not understood by a Slavic speaker of another tongue.
Leaving the concert, I was very disappointed. and I was forced to question my own identity as an English speaker, a challenged bilinguist, and ultimately as an American. First, what advantage do I have as an English speaker, if every educated person, be they Slav, German, French, or Italian speak English? Can I distinguish myself or stand out in any notable way in a language with three billion speakers? Second, as someone currently entrenched in the study of an objectively easy language, Italian, what is the point of continuing? If English is applicable everywhere, why bother learning anything? I will never be able to learn any second language as well as any European, forced to confront a completely different language every 100 miles. Third, if not bound by an exclusive language, what binds us together as Americans? In Czech, the word for Czech ethnicity, Czech language, and Czech citizenship are all the same. The language is nearly impossible for outsiders to learn, so making distinctions between the three words is useless. What can America claim if English is spoken as the lingua franca
of peoples from every continent. I recently met a group of Danes who have learned English since the third grade. They are thoroughly inundated in American culture through films, TV, music, and all other media. When they asked were I was from, I said America. They asked where in America. I said New York. They asked where in New York. I said Manhattan. They asked where in Manhattan. I said Greenwich Village. They asked if I were near Magnolia’s bakery, which they know from Sex in the City.
It was an unreal experience for someone who had never heard of the city they were from. (Denmark’s second longest city, whose name still eludes me.)
The only consolation that I have to these three questions is my love of literature. Will I ever speak Danish as well as the Danes speak English? No. Same goes for French, German, Italian, and any other languages that I might have the pretension to attempt to learn. I can, however, take consolation in reading literature in a foreign tongue. It is a much more personal experience. The lightness of Italian, or the heaviness of Danish all comes through in the literature of the country. This is why I continue to try to learn, appreciate, and grapple with foreign tongues. Even if I will always speak Italian like an American, my hope is that I can read Italian like a native speaker.