Learning the Local Language

Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, I never bothered to lean Spanish. I had plenty of opportunities, though. Spanish was offered in all the schools, and I ventured south of the border on a handful of occasions through border towns like Nogales. But the main reason why I never bothered to learn more than a few words in Spanish was because I resented the fact that so many people were coming across the southern border and insisting that I learn Spanish to speak with them, instead of learning English to speak with me in my own country.

It frustrated me to no end that everything in Tucson was required to be printed in both languages; I thought that this was laziness on "their" part. Meanwhile, I studied German in High School, because I was certain that German was going to be a useful language in a state where the two spoken languages were English and Spanish. (Hint: Sarcasm.)

But then a weird thing happened: I joined the Army to become a Russian Linguist in the mid-1980s, and I was sent to the the Defense Language Institute (DLI) to learn the Russian language. After I graduated from two years of military training, I was sent to Germany for the next several years. (As it turns out, my years of studying German had actually paid off. Who would have thought?)

However, while I was stationed in Germany, I noticed an odd thing happening: a lot of the American GIs who were stationed there never picked up the German language, and many of the Germans appeared to have no knowledge of English. But here's the odd part about that: I discovered later that most of those Germans actually spoke English. I got to know some German friends while I was stationed there, and they told me that they resented the fact that Americans were "too lazy to learn the local language," so they pretended like they didn't know English. But by the late 1980s, all students were required to study English in the local German schools, so it is no stretch of the imagination to say that pretty much everyone spoke a modicum of English.

It reminds me of the following video:

That being said, I could speak the German language on a passable level, and most Germans were very forgiving of my frequent mistakes because they could see that I was making an effort. I remember botching my order at a restaurant, and my waitress coldly retorted in condescending English, "I can speak English!" To which I replied in fluent German, "Yes, but we're in Germany, and I want to speak German in Germany." This caught her off guard, and her attitude improved greatly; for the rest of the evening we spoke nothing but the local language. And that was largely my experience while stationed in Germany; most Germans spoke a bit of English, and yet most Germans respected my efforts when I attempted to interact with them in their native tongue.

Although I have to say, there was one woman that I knew in passing when I was stationed in Germany who NEVER learned any English.

Here's her story:

My wife and I lived off post in a tiny German village, and there was an older woman who took her evening walks around the time that I arrived home from work each day. And by "older," I mean that she was in her 80s, and I was stationed in Germany during the late 1980s. In other words, she was in her 40s when WWII ended in 1945, which means that I represented an "occupying force" in her eyes. I was a visible, constant reminder of everything she hated.

I already knew a bit of German when I arrived, of course, but I continued to learn German while I was stationed there, and I would always greet the old woman by at least waving and saying, "Hi." By the end of my first year, I received nothing from her but the evil eye treatment. For the second year, her apparent loathing of me was reduced to a passing, disapproving glance. By the third year, she had met my wife and young daughters several times as they went through the village on their own walks; the old woman LIKED them, so eventually I would receive a smileless shrug in exchange for my more elegant greetings.

When my wife and I finally left Germany sometime during our fourth year, the old woman still wouldn't talk to me, but she would at least make an effort to stop and wave in return. There was still no smile, of course, but I think she viewed me less and less as a potential enemy... even if I kind of was the enemy. I would like to think that in the end, the efforts my wife and I made to assimilate ourselves into the local culture yielded a grudging respect from her.

Nevertheless, when my wife and I returned home from Germany, we returned to Arizona, and my former resentment over the local language was long gone. By that time I had interacted with and experienced multiple cultures, and I had learned the value of making an effort where language is concerned. Oh sure, I meet the occasional person who has lived here for more than a decade and still insists that they haven't learned any English. I'm willing to bet that they're not being entirely truthful, but I learned during my tenure as a linguist that not all languages are equal, and as it turns out - English is a terrible language to learn if you weren't born here. On the other hand, Spanish is considerably easier to learn, for just about anyone.

So in the end, these days I make a conscious effort to speak Spanish when I have the chance, and I appreciate it when visitors who travel across the southern border make a conscious effort to speak a little English from time to time.


POSTSCRIPT:

As my wife and I have continued to travel the globe, I have always made an effort to pick up something of the local language wherever we go. Of course, the depth of my learning is usually just enough to greet people, to understand basic directions, to purchase something, and to order food. I learned enough French to get by in France, enough Italian to get around in Italy, and even a basic understanding of some common Tahitian phrases when I was in French Polynesia. I would never say that my language skills were anything more than the most basic of levels in any of those languages, but still - I made an effort, and it was always appreciated.

The Shrimp of my Father

Spanish is more or less the fourth language that I've learned, and recent experience has reminded me that I'm a little out of practice.

I was trying to tell my middlest daughter about Linda Ronstadt's "Canciones de mi Padre" album, but what I said was "Camarones de mi Padre."

Caramones-de-mi-Padre

While that may be amusing, it just isn't the same...

Open-mouthed smile

English isn't English

A colleague recently reminded me of George Bernard Shaw's famous quote that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." I have lived through many situations where I have experienced that sentiment firsthand. And with that in mind, I'd like to share a story about a conversation that I had when I was working with the British RAF:

RAF: "You troffing today?"

ME: O_o

RAF: "Yamming?"

ME: O_o

RAF: "Nose-bagging?"

ME: O_o

RAF: "Scoffing?"

ME: O_o

RAF: "Bucking & gagging?"

ME: O_o

RAF: "Are you eating lunch?"

ME: "Yes."