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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.

Having been in France and Italy and not speaking the language wasn't that bad; between my high school Spanish and my Church Latin, I could generally figure out things that were written. I had a REALLY hard time mentally in Russia where I couldn't even guess at the pronunciation of what I was looking at.

When I went to France a few years ago, I was surprised at how well and how quickly I began to remember the four years of it I took in high school. Even stumbling directly off the 16 hour flight at the airport train station, I was able to translate for my parents the woman's explanation of how to use the Paris Metro (important, considering we're westerners where there is no such thing as the subway, so we don't have practice in that area).

What also surprised me was just how quickly my parents decided to hell with even trying to communicate in the native language, and after firing off the very few phrases they had in Spanish and Italian (which the French don't respond to well at all), they simply chose not to try to communicate if "Do you speak English" didn't get a taker. Granted, they had me there translating everything, but FFS. This from my stepfather, who worships the ground Rick Steves walks on. I would have thought they'd at least purchase a phrasebook. Or even an App.

When I went to Europe about five years ago, it didn't even occur to me until I got off the plane in Köln that I don't speak a word of German. I can sing a passable Stille Nacht, and imitate WWII movies badly, and that's it. Nearly everyone I needed to talk to spoke English, though, so I was fine, but I was blown away by the fact that it hadn't even crossed my mind. I was also going to France and I'd been hoping my French would be good enough (it was ...passable, but I am not very good at verbing on the fly), but German? Did not cross my mind.

Though if I went today I'd be fine in the history section of any bookshop, I tell you what.

My wife's experience was that getting Germans to speak to her in German was actually difficult, even though she was fluent. Once they realized she was American they wanted to try out their English on her.

(Deleted comment)
I will second this comment, right down to exchange student in Spain--it wasn't just Americans, but I did tend to notice them more. (Maybe because they all seemed to wear sneakers or flip-flops. It might, in fact, be all about the shoes.)

That's really fascinating to me. Because whenever I travel, people assume that I'm Canadian or British. I wonder what that says about my Travel Persona?

As a Brit, the 'are you Canadian' thing might be because Canadians (in my experience) react VERY badly to being thought of as American. My default is Canadian-unless-proven-otherwise. North American demeanour defaults to Canadian, in my head.

On the other hand, it could be you seem closer to British, which coupled with the accent, defaults to Canadian. English attitude + American accent = Canadian? IDK.

I was absolutely blown away the first time I visited Germany, by the fact that nearly everyone of every social strata spoke at least some English and that the people, in general, were very kind and understanding about my attempts to not be a raging douchebag and try to get along with simple words and mime. It was not what I expected and as you said, it certainly wouldn't be a foreign person's experience in most parts of the US.

When my family was traveling in Germany once, my mother was chatting with a grocery store clerk, as she tends to do, and the clerk asked where we were from. When Mom said we were from the US, the clerk said, "You can't be Americans! You're too polite!"

(None of us speak German, but it turns out you can go quite a long way on Bitte and Danke.)

Other American tourists observed on that trip included, memorably, the soldier who tried to borrow a pen from my mother to deface some hundreds of years old decorations on a tower (that did not go over well; I was expecting one or the other of them to be flung from the top of the tower) and the young father who left his wife and child sheltering from a light rain under an arch while he ran across the open courtyard to the ticket booth, shouting, "I'm an American! I can wear a diaper bag on my head!" Overall, locations with a higher proportion of American tourists were louder than locations with a higher proportion of other sorts of tourists.

Edited at 2012-09-26 11:24 pm (UTC)

*snerk* Well, I give the last guy points...

I will admit there was at least one point where we DESPERATELY needed a restroom but there wasn't an open one at the teeny tiny train station, and as we gazed longingly at the bushes, I said "I don't think "Je ne barbare american" is gonna cut it on a public urination charge. We waited.

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
*** "Normal" - two is polysyllabic, no?

the leroy jekins comparison is perfect. it is EXACTLY right.

I cannot claim it--it's the personification of the US from a comic called "Scandanavia and the World."

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
“How do they KNOW? We don’t say anything and they still know immediately!”

I had the experience once of seeing a woman (of the "descended from Europeans of some sort" coloring common to most Americans) walk into Starbucks and immediately thinking "That woman will speak with a non-native accent. She is not American born. French, maybe?"

When the woman ordered, she did, in fact, speak English with a non-native accent. I wasn't close enough to tell what her accent was, so I don't know where she was from, but it wasn't around here.

And I have NO IDEA how I knew. Something about the way she carried herself, perhaps but I'm not really sure. This was during the time when I was teaching an ESL discussion class with a very mixed group of students, so I suspect that my awareness set hire than normal.

Edited at 2012-09-26 11:37 pm (UTC)

One of my Useless Superpowers is that people think I'm a good person to ask for directions. Everywhere I've traveled to (which is not that many places, admittedly, but does include a few places where I spoke not one word of the local language) people have attempted to ask me for directions; in fact, this seems to happen more often when I'm in an unfamiliar-to-me place.

The last time I visited Europe, the perfect stranger who asked me for directions did so in broken English. Which means that this person had subconsciously realized that I didn't speak the local language very well, but still they thought I would know how to get around.

I consider that part of 'librarian aura' - the thing that gets you asked questions in supermarkets and stores, and directions in countries in which you don't speak the language *and they do*.

I do my best, but I've an upcoming trip to Germany/Switzerland, and a few years of french/spanish/finnish will only go so far...

The thing I've found in traveling all over the world is that most places you go people tend to try and be helpful to travelers in spite of language barriers. On a recent birdwatching trip. We actually spent the night at a homestay on a tiny island off the coast of Korea. We don't speak more than 5 words of Korean but we managed to use internet translations and got a helpful hotel desk clerk in Gunsan to call and make the arrangements for us. It was awkward, yes, but our hostess was a kind lady and hopefully we didn't make too big a nuisance of ourselves.

We are NOT outgoing people, btw. We're not those gregarious backpacker types - goodness knows it'd be helpful for our travels if we were! But we're more the quiet, keep-to-ourselves type of tourists who just want to find a hiking trail that's within reach of public transit and look for birds. >_>

Still, once you get used to how things work and get past the point of worrying about stuff, it's actually pretty fun!

But protip: don't ever try to get from Lima to Cusco via Huancayo. Trust me on this. >_>

$wife and I were in Turkey a couple of years back (as part of a group of kiwis) and we found most people we dealt with had at least a smattering of english, however we found that while the kiwi accent was almost intelligible to no-english speakers my australian accent was definitely un-intelligible.

This was slightly crazy to me, particularly given that when we lived in .uk most folk thought $wife was Australian and I was English - this despite she being London.uk born & I being Ailice_Springs.au born...

Accents can be crazy things...

In college (in the US) I had a classmate from Turkey who once confessed to being intimidated by a British professor in our department because he (the classmate) had a very hard time understanding anything the professor said. Meanwhile, I thought the professor was highly intelligible. I figured my classmate's entire immersion experience with English had been in the US and he just had a hard time grasping strong accents that were different from what he was used to.

I was lucky in Prague, in that most people could manage a few words of English, and all the restaurants had their menus in English as well as Czech. Combine that with me having a few basic words like "please" and "thank you", and the process of buying a one-day travelcard being fairly automated and well-described in the guidebook, and I managed . . .

Oh, and a bit of enthusiastic sign language. I think the best bit of that was when I bought a bowtie for my father in a men's clothing shop. Luckily my "man tying a bowtie" hand gestures were recognisable. :)

The other important lesson I got out of it is on the value of money. Being a cheap midwestern person, I have a tendency to look for 'deals', but in Japan and Italy, I would mentally convert from the local currency to money that I understood the value of, and then realize that I still had no idea what I was buying was SUPPOSED to cost. ...so, at some point I just started getting by on faith that I wasn't being taken advantage of. Seven bucks for a beer? Arigato. Fifty bucks for this thing? Molto bene. Money almost stopped being real. After all, when's the next time I'm going to get to Italy or Japan? So far, never.

So it turns out that the thing to do is just sit down in a nice restaurant and order a three-course meal. I can't speak a word of Italian, but it turns out that I can order dinner. And I did this without even bothering to try to do math between lire and dollars. Just sat there and enjoyed the food, the atmosphere, and the vigorous argument between the twenty-something girl and her fifty-something mother at the next table, in what I'm pretty sure was a mixture of French, Spanish, and Italian all at the same time. And somehow this wound up being the best meal I've ever eaten.

Later, I found out: that was $110. ...and worth every penny.

Money almost stopped being real. After all, when's the next time I'm going to get to Italy or Japan? So far, never.
This is the same sort of way I came home from Ireland with a $30 CD.
Still: worth it.