UrsulaV (ursulav) wrote,

Linguistic Divergence

I was chatting with my Dad about going to France earlier, and a few more things occurred to me about the trip worth mentioning.

One was how….mmm…linguistically courteous? so many things were. Leaving aside the labeling in English under most menus and all major signs, at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris, you got in a line for the ticket-takers, and each window had a little monitor over it, which said “Departing Immediately” in French. On a little band on each screen were flags–Italian, Spanish, British. They indicated what languages the ticket-taker spoke, so we would go to the one with the British flag and be assured of speaking to someone who had at least a basic fluency in English and could give us directions to the platform. (My mother had enough basic fluency in French to get tickets anyway, and even I, once I managed to figure out that allez was “one way” and voile was “platform,” could make myself understood, but it was MUCH faster to go to someone where mime was not a required step.)

Now, this is of course of no surprise to anyone living in Europe, because there’s a great many languages piled on top of each other in a close space and it only makes sense, and of course I have known it in the abstract for many years, and long believed that a shamefully high percentage of My Fellow Americans are, to put it mildly, raging irrational dicks on the primary language front* when there are plenty of proofs out there that yes, we can all just get along if we’re willing to Not Be Dicks and extend a little goodwill and play some charades and put a couple of subtitle options on the DVDs.

But it does certainly bring it home when you are immersed in a completely foreign language and you know all of ten words and nevertheless practically everyone you meet is willing to knuckle down and figure out what you are saying (and/or speaks at least fifty or a hundred words of your language anyway.) (And on at least one occasion, seeing that we were headed for the wrong platform, a station guard who had spoken no English at all and engaged in some very spirited mime with us sprinted after us and made sure we got on the correct platform. It was extremely kind, and I was very grateful.)

Try this in the US and I’ll give you even odds on being eaten by wolves.

This is not news, of course.

What I didn’t realize is how downright scary it can be not to speak the language. In the abstract, I suppose I had some notion, but I think that’s one you really and truly have to actually experience, or possibly I was just more unsettled by it than many people would be. (My father was not, he said, ever particularly bothered by not speaking the language, and has lived and worked in China and Egypt and Japan and simply learned all the tricks of How To Get Where You Are Going Anyway, like always keeping business cards for your hotel in your wallet to hand to cab drivers.)

This may simply be a personality thing. Words are my stock in trade and my primary weapon to attack the world with, and I did feel rather like somebody took my sword away and gave me a Nerf bat and said “Right! Go get ‘em, tiger!” (And then of course there’s all the problems of being female and traveling in a big city where you don’t have anyone to call if you get in trouble and the added neurosis that if you lose this one little blue square of paper, YOU WILL NEVER GO HOME AGAIN.**)

Let me hasten to add that this is not me saying that I think everybody everywhere should speak my language, because dude, I like to think I am not one of the world’s more complete douchebags. This is more me saying that I felt…I don’t know, vulnerable? Unsettled? Like I stuck out a mile?

These are not necessarily bad things to feel. It is probably good to feel them sometimes. The universe owes you very few things, and the right to go to other countries and not feel awkward and out of place is nowhere on the list. And I think that given a couple more weeks or a few more trips, I would probably get over it and get used to the mime and whatnot and possibly even enjoy it. I was certainly a bit more comfortable by the end of the trip, when it was obvious that despite knowing all of ten words and having a truly cringeworthy accent, I could still get by.

(This does not mean, I hasten to add, that I didn’t enjoy myself! Far from it! It’s just a weird underlying feeling. Somebody undoubtedly has a polysyllabic word for “the feeling of dislocation experienced by the first-time traveler which wears off eventually and causes one to re-examine one’s own nation’s linguistic biases.”***)

The other funny thing was that everywhere we went, even if we didn’t say a single word, they KNEW we were Americans. I could understand that my pronunciation of “Bonjour!” probably leaves a lot to be desired (I practiced! Really!) but pretty soon my mother was asking “How do they KNOW? We don’t say anything and they still know immediately!”

My theory was that Birkenstocks with socks have not caught on in Europe, but my father’s far more plausible one is that if you live somewhere long enough, you can spot an American a mile off, although you don’t know how you know. “Something about how Americans hold themselves,” he said, “and dress, and how we look at things.” (He went on to say that there comes a point, when you’ve lived in said country long enough, where you no longer give off this vibe. He was in Egypt long enough that people would come up and begin speaking to him in Arabic.) So I guess there’s a case to be made for body language there, or maybe cut of clothes or…something.

I don’t know. My understanding of how the rest of the world views Americans is mostly informed by a deep suspicion that it expects us (at best) to be well-meaning and rather overbearing and (at worst) to be wrapped in American flags, wearing cowboy hats and streaking through the crowd screaming “LEEEEEROOOOOOY JENKINS!”  I tried very hard not to look this was something I might do, and everyone extended me the courtesy of not acting as if this were a possibility.

And the orange juice was incredible.




*I’m really not interested in having a debate about primary languages/immigration/whatever in the comments, and will delete such starting, because seriously, not enough spoons, guys. Hit me up again sometime when it’s not election season and the jingoistic fervor in the air has died down a bit.

**Until the consulate gets you a replacement.

***Incidentally, every German tourist we encountered spoke English better than I do.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

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