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Author Topic: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.  (Read 3260 times)

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Offline ZeitgeistTopic starter

Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« on: November 03, 2010, 08:38:15 PM »
My son and I are taking Italian together through a community education class. We are traveling to Rome next year in the Spring, so we thought it would be a good idea to learn as much of the language as we can before travel there. My son, who is sixteen is in his third year of Spanish.

We were discussing tonight, him and I, about how similar Spanish and Italian are. This discussion got me thinking along other lines. About how some turn their noses (even other Americans) about how few of us are multilingual. It occurred to me then that this has less to do with some perceived perception that Americans are either arrogant, ignorant or both, than it does with history and geography.

It isn't at all surprising that an Italian would be versed and understand Spanish, some French and English. Nor would it be surprising that an Asian would know Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. If one lives in Europe you are surrounded by countries and regions of people who speak different languages but share a common root, such as Latin in most of Europe.

America has some French Canadians up in Montreal and what not, and a fair number of Spanish speakers to the south of them, but that is it.

So, I think it's overly simplistic and unfair to categorize Americans as ignorant or arrogant when it comes to multilingualism when it really has more to do with geography and history than anything else. That said, it is always recommended to branch out and learn other languages. But how many Asians do you think speak Norwegian? Or Africans speak German? Not a whole lot I would imagine.

Am I off base here? Agree, disagree? Bad analogy?

Offline mystictiger

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #1 on: November 03, 2010, 09:30:01 PM »
It's not a question of being American, but rather of being a native English language speaker. The second language of choice of most people is English, as it's become the lingua franca of international trade, aviation, the internet, entertainment and so on, not because they live near English-speaking countries.

Language prevelance is largely based on age, education, and type of employment. My experience living in various European and Asian countries is that:
-Younger people tend to speak English
-More educated people tend to speak English
-Professionals tend to speak English

You therefore end up with the decidedly odd experience of talking to Dutch people who speak English with an American accent by virtue of watching American TV and listening to American music.

Another factor are colonial relationships - bits of the world that the Brits owned tend to speak English, and so on.

Patterns of migration and cultural links are also important. You therefore end up with a lot of German speakers in South America and Australia. It would therefore be reasonable, given how many Americans describe themselves as [Other country]-Americans to also speak or at least have some grasp of that other language. I certainly see the same in Australians - huge numbers of Greeks, Lebanese, and Vietnamese-origined people speaking both in the area I lived in.

In the UK, migrant populations tend to speak English and their 'mother' tongue - Urdu, Hindi, Mandarin, and so on. British-origin Brits tend just speak English, plus a tiny smattering of 'schoolboy' French or German and so on.

It is, I think, purely lazieness that means we don't learn other languages. We don't have to. Our language is the most common one. I tried so desperately hard to learn Dutch and BCS when living in those respective countries, but my experience was the same - friendly locals who say things like "You are trying ot learn my language? How charming. But please, let me practice my English on you". Needless to say, my conversational Dutch is very limited indeed.

Quote
Or Africans speak German?
Quite a lot will speak Dutch ;)
« Last Edit: November 03, 2010, 09:39:50 PM by mystictiger »

Offline Egon

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #2 on: November 03, 2010, 10:04:37 PM »
It is, I think, purely lazieness that means we don't learn other languages. We don't have to. Our language is the most common one. I tried so desperately hard to learn Dutch and BCS when living in those respective countries, but my experience was the same - friendly locals who say things like "You are trying ot learn my language? How charming. But please, let me practice my English on you". Needless to say, my conversational Dutch is very limited indeed.

Yep - you're completely right. That, and there's the fact that many non-English-speaking countries are bombarded by English-language movies, TV shows, songs and countless other cultural products, as you brought up, which makes it impossible not to pick up bits and pieces of the language here and there every day. That, in turn, makes for population in which most members have a shaky but adequate grasp of conversational English; and the types you mentioned, who are heavily exposed to the language even though they don't necessarily try actively to learn it - young people, the educated, & professionals - have, in my experience, a near-native grasp of it.

Thinking about it, in fact, very few fluent speakers of English as a second language I know learned very much of it in school or through language lessons. They simply absorbed it - osmotically, if you will :-) - from their environment over time.


As for the original question...

Quote
So, I think it's overly simplistic and unfair to categorize Americans as ignorant or arrogant when it comes to multilingualism when it really has more to do with geography and history than anything else. That said, it is always recommended to branch out and learn other languages. But how many Asians do you think speak Norwegian? Or Africans speak German? Not a whole lot I would imagine.

Am I off base here? Agree, disagree? Bad analogy?

No, I think you're basically right. Necessity is the mother of invention (and, to talk about the really basic level, of adaptation).

Offline Serephino

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #3 on: November 03, 2010, 10:18:15 PM »
True, there really is no need for most of us Americans to learn another language.  The only need I had was to get 2 foreign language credits in high school.  I took 2 years of Spanish, and 2 years of French.  I don't remember most of it because I don't use it.

Though the reason Spanish and Italian sound similar is because those and French are classified as Romantic languages, which basically means they're rooted in Latin. 

Offline ZeitgeistTopic starter

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #4 on: November 04, 2010, 06:08:48 PM »
Though the reason Spanish and Italian sound similar is because those and French are classified as Romantic languages, which basically means they're rooted in Latin. 

Well see that goes to the heart of my argument, or one of them at least. History, or rather linguistic history. It isn't at all surprising that an Italian would have picked up from various resources a basic fluency in more than one language than their own. And it has more to do with history and geography than the idea they are (or others) are more worldly than American English speakers.

More to the point I think it is a nuance that I've not heard considered before, and I don't think "those people" who think American English speakers are ignorant, arrogant or lazy, consider this.

And it's not like we've forced Europeans to use English. I believe the French do just fine without it.

Offline mystictiger

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #5 on: November 04, 2010, 06:42:18 PM »
France is precisely a bad example. The EU says that 34% of the French can speak English.

Offline Noelle

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #6 on: November 04, 2010, 06:45:51 PM »
The French are just as accustomed to English-speakers as anyone else, their cultural attitude about actually putting it to use is just a little different. It was irritating to me as a foreigner to be speaking perfectly comprehensible French to a native and have them try and speak back to me in English. They have good intentions -- they think they're helping me out because most anglophones don't speak another language, but I had to assure them that I understood them fine and they didn't have to switch. I was often mistaken for being German because my American accent is more or less well-hidden, also.

The French are more affected by English than their officials care to admit -- After all, they have an academy based around 'protecting' French from using loan words from other languages, especially English and especially Arabic, what with their large Maghreb population, going so far as to create separate words for new technologies even though in common parlance, most people will use the loan word and largely ignore the Academy. I still see courriel on official forms, where most would probably just say e-mail.

Edit: I should also note that my anglophone friends who couldn't speak French at all were often treated worse -- I suspect it's a cultural thing. If you don't display good manners and attempt to speak French, they often are stubborn about helping you.

Offline Lilias

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #7 on: November 04, 2010, 06:51:13 PM »
Call me obsessed with languages (I'm fluent in four and have acquired at least a smattering of about half a dozen more - it's the Greek gene), but languages are not just a skill you learn if you need it. Partly because really mastering a language takes much longer than most skills out there, and needs can change faster. Partly because delving into another culture is a rewarding experience in itself, even if it involves (gasp, shudder) work.

Europeans learn English for utilitarian reasons, while native English speakers have the luxury of picking what to study as they please. I wish I didn't have to worry about being understood wherever in the civilised world I went, and could concentrate on enjoying the learning process instead.

Offline mystictiger

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #8 on: November 04, 2010, 07:03:22 PM »
Both Noelle and Lilias make excellent points, but I would also like to add the following modifiers.

Firstly, all countries are (rightly) proud of their language and traditions, even countries that end up with a random language as their national language (e.g. English in various Carribean countries, or in India), and they value it being used well.

Secondly, it is a great sign of respect to try and learn the language of a culture you're living in. QE2 got a really very warm reception when she addressed the French parliament in French. Granted, she spoke in Queen Voice to them, but her French was perfect. Also, Nick Clegg (our Deputy Prime Minister) addressed Germans in their own language. These stand out because they are so rare. And it is a shame that they are. The only example of English language leaders addressing another country in their own language is JFK's "I am a donut" moment.

Thirdly, it is a delight to interact with classics in their original form. As mentioned elsewhere on the boards, reading the Count of Monte Cristo in the original French is so much better than reading someone else's translation.

Lastly, the Italian-Spanish thing isn't really a good comparison. Italian people speak Italian. This just happens to be close to Spanish. It's not because Italian speakers have gone out of their way to learn it.

Offline Noelle

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #9 on: November 04, 2010, 07:23:38 PM »
Actually, I get a lot of the same question from other Americans about what exactly I plan to do with my French degree. It used to bother me a lot, it used to make me start feeling regret for spending 8 years concentrated on one language I can't even use daily. But you know what? Learning another language is incredibly satisfying. You unlock a whole different world you otherwise didn't have access to. You can read literature in its native language and hear it expressed in ways your language can't. I can communicate with a whole population of people I couldn't before. It really does open the world up to you one bit at a time.

You're right though, Lilias, it's not a skill you hone in a month or even a year. It takes years to be able to communicate efficiently and it's something you have to continually engage in order to maintain. It's not easy, though it does get easier after you learn one :D

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Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #10 on: November 04, 2010, 07:25:53 PM »
Ever considered professional translating? 

On the initial topic, I remember that when I was taking my first year of German, there was a unit where we learned about German schools.  In addition to German, they were required to take English and one other language.  When I was in high school, the requirement was either three years of one language, or two years of two different languages.
« Last Edit: November 04, 2010, 07:29:52 PM by Oniya »

Offline Noelle

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #11 on: November 04, 2010, 07:46:43 PM »
Thought about it, yes...I'm not sure if I can afford additional schooling, though. I'm riiight on the cusp of being fluent, but I still have some kinks to work out. Unfortunately, I graduated, so it's kind of up to me now to fill in the gaps and push to keep using my language. Am actually working on some forms right now to go teach English in France next year, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed :P

It really is amazing to see how many Europeans are bi- and tri-lingual. I get the feeling that America is kind of drifting in that direction, especially with the mass introduction of Spanish-speaking immigrants, all we need now is a mass exodus of French-Canadians 8D

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Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #12 on: November 04, 2010, 07:58:03 PM »
Thought about it, yes...I'm not sure if I can afford additional schooling, though. I'm riiight on the cusp of being fluent, but I still have some kinks to work out. Unfortunately, I graduated, so it's kind of up to me now to fill in the gaps and push to keep using my language. Am actually working on some forms right now to go teach English in France next year, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed :P

It really is amazing to see how many Europeans are bi- and tri-lingual. I get the feeling that America is kind of drifting in that direction, especially with the mass introduction of Spanish-speaking immigrants, all we need now is a mass exodus of French-Canadians 8D

If you want a cheap form of pushing yourself, find some French-language forums or IRC channels on a topic you enjoy.

Offline Vekseid

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #13 on: November 05, 2010, 04:55:41 PM »
It's not a question of being American, but rather of being a native English language speaker. The second language of choice of most people is English, as it's become the lingua franca of international trade, aviation, the internet, entertainment and so on, not because they live near English-speaking countries.

In countries like India, it's also used as a sort of neutral language, to make sure various advantages attributed to cultural languages are avoided.

I took two years of French and two years of Japanese. I'm horrible at both, really.

And it's not like we've forced Europeans to use English. I believe the French do just fine without it.

They don't do without it. They're doing their damndest to keep English from influencing their language and are failing in a most remarkable fashion.

Offline Major Major

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #14 on: November 11, 2010, 01:52:11 AM »
Oddly, I'm in the same boat as you, Vekseid; I learned a little French at intermediate school, and wanted to continue with that in Secondary School, but when I got there the French teacher, an old battleaxe who insisted we call her 'Madmoiselle Debenham', just sucked all the joy I had for it clean out of me, so by Fifth Form I just didn't even bother, and just daydreamed in class; also, in my first year, I had to take a second course, which was Japanese; it was completely incomprehensible to me.

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Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #15 on: November 11, 2010, 01:57:45 AM »
Oddly, I'm in the same boat as you, Vekseid; I learned a little French at intermediate school, and wanted to continue with that in Secondary School, but when I got there the French teacher, an old battleaxe who insisted we call her 'Madmoiselle Debenham', just sucked all the joy I had for it clean out of me, so by Fifth Form I just didn't even bother, and just daydreamed in class; also, in my first year, I had to take a second course, which was Japanese; it was completely incomprehensible to me.

I know this much French - I'm hoping she was a spinster?  Because, as I understand it, Mademoiselle is the form of address for an unmarried woman, the way Fršulein is in German.  (And I also recall that after a certain age, even an unmarried German woman will insist on 'Frau'.

Offline Major Major

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #16 on: November 11, 2010, 02:04:27 AM »
No comment, but nonetheless, my interest in learning French was killed stone dead by her.

Offline Lilias

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #17 on: November 11, 2010, 02:08:28 AM »
It could be a cultural thing - at least in the UK, the term of address for a female teacher, regardless of age or marital status, is 'Miss', while in Greece it's 'Madam' (Kyria, literally 'Mistress', just like the word for 'Sir' - and male teachers - is Kyrios, the same as for 'Master'). Go figure ;D

Offline Noelle

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #18 on: November 11, 2010, 02:15:53 AM »
Ehh, for some reason, all French teachers seem to be batshit insane, at least all the non-native speakers. Every single non-native French teacher/professor I've ever had a class with has had just a few screws loose, makes me wonder if it's not in their job description or if eventually they just wither away into a total loony after trying to explain the subjunctive for the eight thousandth time. It makes me cringe even more when people ask me if I'm going to be a teacher. :\ I know a lot of people who are turned off of languages because the teaching was poor. It makes me sad -- foreign languages are a beautiful thing, but the wrong person can really ruin it for someone.

Offline Lilias

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #19 on: November 11, 2010, 02:21:08 AM »
Obviously it isn't in the job description, because of the 15 or so non-native French teachers I've had, only one was even close to that style. Perhaps something in the water there? ;)

Offline Noelle

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #20 on: November 11, 2010, 02:39:18 AM »
You got lucky then! Maybe it's just the Americans? I know I'd probably watch my sanity drip slowly away trying to calm the inevitable anger that comes from trying to teach what the subjunctive is and why it's vital to learn, as well as how to conjugate that monster. It took me three years for my class to get it -- and actually, I'd be willing to bet most still don't quite understand it. I don't even know how or why it suddenly clicked for me.

Offline Lilias

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #21 on: November 11, 2010, 03:12:09 AM »
We Greeks are good with languages; it's bred into our genes, that's why so many of us are polyglots ;) So perhaps the teacher's job is a bit easier here? (OK, I'm in the UK now, but I still refer to Greece as 'here'; schizophrenic, I know) To compare your case with the subjunctive, any Greek kid older than 15 (that's when we start studying ancient Greek in the original) is by default familiar with the mood and its use, and learning it in another language becomes exponentially easier.

Offline Acinonyx

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #22 on: November 11, 2010, 03:27:37 AM »
Here in Germany, once you speak English enough, you just have to watch things in English, for the sheer terribleness of synchronization.

Also, unlike France (as far as I know), we do not (yet) have an official requirement that a certain percentage of songs on the radio must be German. Most of the music we hear is English and even as kids we would sing along to English music with more or less incorrect, half-self-made-up lyrics based on what we heard. You can imagine that being surrounded by a language in a regular basis makes it easier to follow along once you're officially learning it in school. And now, as adults, a lot of us need English for their job or travelling, etc. (or in my case, love).

Quote
And I also recall that after a certain age, even an unmarried German woman will insist on 'Frau'.

Mmh... we actually skip the Fršulein these days and go from unfamilair/first name to Frau Lastname. At a certain age and in certain social situations, you'll be Frau Lastname, in others you'll just be addressed in the familiar form (you="Du" + first name). There's a middle-ground often used in the last grades of school that is using the first name and the unfamiliar pronoun "Sie" (you).

A female who'd insist on being called Fršulein because they're young or not married would be considered a bit of a weird person. I'd feel really weirded out if anyone addressed me that way. For me this would have a bit of a negative connotation (and not because I can't properly get married): It has something of being a piqued lady with a bit of a naive touch.
My mother only called me that to reprimand me: "Fršulein, come here and look what you did!"

What I noticed when living in the US is that the language classes are not very different from ours, but that Americans much like the Japanese, have huge problems getting the pronounciation right. It always seemed to me like the more diverse-speaking Europeans had an easier time with that and that the teachers had less of an accent.







Offline Noelle

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #23 on: November 11, 2010, 01:27:54 PM »
:P I'm pretty sure it has very little to do with genes/nationality and a little more to do with culture/environment you grow up in. If you grow up in a place that encourages learning other languages from an early age, the chances of becoming a polyglot increases exponentially, and I imagine it only grows if you start out as a non-English speaker, since (as it has been discussed here) English has become the lingua franca of the world, basically. Location is also a factor; if you're in a smaller space surrounded by people who speak other languages, you're more likely to pick it up. We see this happening slowly in America with the Hispanic population, but obviously it's easier for such things to disperse around Europe where it's not quite so spread out.

As for the subjunctive, I'm not entirely sure why it's not taught in a prevalent way in English. I didn't recognize it myself in the English language until I learned (and understood) the French subjunctive, but I think it's largely very blended in with other tenses (such as the pluperfect and present conditional) not to mention that the way it's used is largely inconsistent with native speakers. I think it might be decreasing in popularity of usage, whereas I know in French, the subjunctive is an extremely distinctive and important tense -- which would mean that it's also about linguistic characteristics, too, in terms of what is learned in school and what remains assumed.

Offline ZeitgeistTopic starter

Re: Multilingual, Americans, Europeans, etc.
« Reply #24 on: November 14, 2010, 10:41:52 AM »

Lastly, the Italian-Spanish thing isn't really a good comparison. Italian people speak Italian. This just happens to be close to Spanish. It's not because Italian speakers have gone out of their way to learn it.

How is this not a good comparison to my point? It's exactly my point. I completely agree with you, and it goes to the heart of the argument I'm making. Europeans are multilingual for more reasons than a perceived worldliness and education beyond American English speakers.

But regardless, this American will learn as much Italian as he can ahead of visiting their country so I can at least make a genuine attempt to speak and understand them. At the very least it is polite.