It seems to me that, in general, people from England, the USA, Australia, New Zealand etc. don’t realise how lucky they are to have been born in an English speaking country. The evidence for this is clear enough in the peculiar belief, which so many of them seem to have, that communication with people from other countries is simply a matter of volume. I can’t count how many times I have witnessed English speakers attempting to break through language barriers by yelling.
Unfortunately, we have been raised in the belief that everyone speaks our language because, well… a great many of them do. It’s a wonderful thing that your native tongue is understood by such a large percentage of the world’s population, but it really has made us lazy. Almost every single person I have met in Sweden, for example, has asked me why I’m bothering to learn Swedish when everyone in Sweden speaks English. And, if I was planning to visit just once or maybe twice, perhaps I wouldn’t, but if you’re planning to spend a significant amount of time in another country, the very least you can do is learn to converse with its inhabitants in their own language, regardless of how well they speak yours.
When you ask a Scandinavian why everyone speaks English so well over there, their answer is invariably “Because we are taught it in school, from a very young age”. Well, English children are taught to speak French from a very young age, but even after 8 or 9 years of lessons most of us couldn’t politely order a grilled ham & cheese sandwich without being laughed at as we ask for a “Crok mi sure, silver plate!” in a perfect, and unflappable Yorkshire accent. We just don’t try hard enough, y’see. Why? Because we feel as though we don’t have to, and I think this needs to change.
Other countries change to accommodate such things. For example, I recently learned that everyone in Sweden drove on the left hand side of the road until precisely 4.50am on September 3rd 1967, when, despite strong opposition from the public, traffic everywhere in the country was directed over to the right side of the road and has stayed that way ever since. 360,000 road signs were changed overnight! Now there’s an example of how you get things done if I ever heard one.
It would be more important for English children to learn other languages in school if theirs was not spoken so widely elsewhere. We are a stubborn enough nation as it is, without others accommodating our bloody-mindedness. It may be true for example that we drive on the left-hand side of the road because it used to be necessary to keep our sword hand closest to our enemies as we passed them, but if the people of South-Central Los Angeles can drive on the right-hand side of the road I hardly see how the argument is relevant to the 21st century school run; no matter how many assault rifles a rural Brit may keep on their passenger seat.
I’m not suggesting people become fluent in Chamicuro simply because they’re honeymooning in a certain part of Peru for a week or anything like that, but you could at least learn a simple please and thank you in most places you visit. Finding a middle ground is certainly difficult, especially when your language program keeps trying to teach you phrases like “Det här djuret kommer från Australien. Det talar inte engelska”. In other words: “This animal comes from Australia. It does not speak English.” And Rosetta Stone does not simply stop at Kangaroos. It goes on to say that a Moose does not speak Swedish, and that a Panda does not speak Chinese.
Obviously it is rarely going to be of any use to tell the people of Sweden, or any other country, that their native animals cannot speak to them, unless you’re assuming all that country’s inhabitants are idiots; attempting to warn them that you might be; or auditioning for a part as Dr Dolittle. But the more you immerse yourself in a language, the easier it is going to be to learn it in the long run. And hey… If you tell the people of China that Pandas don’t speak Chinese, at the very least you should learn how to say “I’ll keep him here. You call an ambulance.” in Mandarin.
I didn’t really have very much to say to you in my own language today, as you might have gathered from the stimulating content of this post, but I’ll be back soon.
Next week I will once again be in my adopted city of Stockholm, but I will try my best to write about my experiences of Swedish midsummer festival, at which I will be learning to say things like “Erm… what do I do with this?” and “Look… I’m sorry about what happened in the football last week! Now please let me down from here!”
Until then, take care, keep learning those languages, and don’t bend over for the soap.