One of my most favorite stand-up comedians is Eddie Izzard. He is deliciously irreverent while also emanating a sense of real intelligence, which is a combination I am particularly fond of. In his perhaps most famous show, Dress to Kill, Izzard talks about the European melting pot. He notes that when the European Union came together, the British were rather…slow to take part. Part of the problem was that the British simply didn’t want to learn everyone else’s language. They didn’t feel they should have to be able to speak French, German, Italian, and all other languages just to conduct business. Izzard quotes an imaginary British person saying, “There’s no way a person can hold more than 2 languages in their head at a time!”
To which Izzard retorts, “Then again, the Dutch speak about 6 languages and are also always high.”
This segment of his show was always amusing to me, but now that I am in the online world, it actually resonates a lot more. Over my year or so doing this blogging tweeting Facebooking thing, I’ve encountered tons of people for whom English is not their first language, and yet they write exceedingly awesome blog posts in English, predominantly tweet in English, predominantly update their Facebook pages in English, and converse in English at conferences.
Now, I, on the other hand, cannot return this favor in the least. For a very brief time I could speak decent Hebrew. For a semi-brief time I was semi-fluent in Spanish. Never did get a grasp on that whole Subjunctive tense though. And now that’s all gone pretty much. I didn’t feel I “needed” to take a foreign language in college, so I did not.
I really regret that now.
“But everyone speaks English”
I think that this is symptomatic of a really serious problem us Americans have with the world at large, and let’s face it…when you’re advised to pretend you’re Canadian so the rest of the world likes you better, you’ve gotta be getting that message. America is a powerful country, but we are also one of the youngest countries in the world…still. And even if it’s true that English is the “language to know” (which I don’t happen to think is true), why is not a priority for Americans to learn how to talk in other languages? Why is not expected that I should be able to talk to someone in French, German, Spanish, or Italian? At least a little bit. At least past “Hello” and “Thank you.”
Why is it just a one-way street?
It’s not just about language
Of course, just looking at the linguistic angle of this is not adequate. I’m encountering people from all sorts of cultures that I have no familiarity with whatsoever. I am entirely clueless as to what life is like in Malaysia or the Philippines or Australia or Norway. I have no idea how those cultures differ from my own, and thus I have no idea how what I might say innocently could be misconstrued as deeply offensive. I have no real understanding of faiths that have not directly touched my life. If we are really engaging in social media, isn’t this stuff pretty important? If you have the chance to engage with the entire world, why limit your perspective to just those things with which you are familiar?
Maybe it’s just me
Maybe this is more a personal failure on my part. Maybe other Americans don’t have these problems. But I do most certainly feel that it is a failure on my part at the very least. The more I am exposed to people who can talk, at any given time, in 3-4 different languages, the more I feel that my role as a citizen of the new world is not being fulfilled properly and adequately. That really bothers me.
What do you think? If you’re not from America originally, do you find Americans generally ignorant of your country and culture? If you are native to America, do you feel as troubled as me about our inability to converse as readily with different people speaking in different tongues?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fatguyinalittlecoat/5310405113/ via Creative Commons