Monday, October 19, 2009

Language Issues

The Language Issue

This is always the elephant in the room when you move to another country.  When any English-speaking ex-pats get together either in person or online, the third question after “Have you found an apartment?” and “Where’s home for you?” is “So, how’s your –insert new language—coming along?”

Oh, everybody arrives with big plans to jump right on the language fast track.  From where I am sitting right now at my desk I can count four French dictionaries and three different brands of French CDs.  I can also see the Big Red Book from my actual French class that I attended a whopping 13 days sitting there taunting me, “Oh, Riki, ma cherie, here I am.  Over here on the shelf, Riki.  Why have you spurned me so, dear Trailing Spouse?  What did I ever do to you, besides give you anxiety attacks and make you feel dumber than dirt?  Come back to me, Riki, come back, sil vous plait!

I remember thinking that I would be fluent in French in six months.  OMG, that is such a joke.  There are ex-pats here in Switzerland who have been here FOR DECADES who are not fluent.  (I know, because I checked because I felt like such a doofus that I was just not getting it.)  I am blaming it on the fact that I am American. 

Top Ten Reasons Why Americans Suck at Foreign Languages

10.  It is really hard.  We are, by nature, lazy. 

9.  There are 8 different ways in French to say “this one” and “that one”.  That’s right, eight.  (That was my lesson #13 and the day I threw up my hands in defeat and quit French school).

8.  For some unknown reason, nouns have a gender.  Why is that, you say?  Why is “rug” a boy (le tapis) but the “chair” (la chaise) that is sitting on it is a girl?   There is no answer to that question.  It is what it is.  Americans hate that answer.  We want to know why.

7.  Some/many languages are in another alphabet.  Don’t even get me started.  I cannot wrap my mind around that one.  I think Americans who manage to become fluent in Mandarin or Farsi should have automatic membership in Mensa.  Hello, ma’am,  that says “How are you”.

Yes, I know it looks like Pick-Up-Sticks tossed down on the sidewalk, but they are, in fact, actual words. 

6.  We do not learn it in school.  HA, parents, pay attention.  You might think we are actually learning something in 10th grade Spanish class, but the joke is on you, we are coasting through for an easy “A”.  We can take 4 years of Spanish in high school and not be able to tell our maid that we are unhappy with her vaccuuming skills by our 10-year reunion.  Hell, we don’t even know what “yo quiero, Taco Bell” means, well, except for the Taco Bell part.

5.  We do not tend to marry/date people who don’t speak English.  I still haven’t figured this one out.  I have talked to soooo many people in Europe who do not speak the same language as their spouse/boyfriend.  I’m like, uh, OK, so how do you communicate?  Well, he speaks Languages X and Y fluently and a little bit of A and B.  She speaks Languages N, O and P fluently and a little bit of A and Q.  So, they speak Language “A” to each other.  I think they must all have great sex lives because there ain’t a lot of conversation goin’ on, if you know what I mean.

4.  We do not hire au pairs or nannies who speak a third language to our children.  They do this over here.  Mom is a Brit and speaks only English to the kiddies.  Dad is Swiss and speaks only Swiss German to them.  Then they hire an au pair from some other country, specifically for the purpose of teaching the children a third language. 

3.  We have enough trouble simply learning correct English.  Y’all know whut ah mean?

2.  We cannot make the sounds correctly and risk sounding stupid.  The French letter “r” and the German “ch” come immediately to mind.  They sound like when your disgusting Uncle Bertie coughs up something unmentionable.

And the number ONE reason Americans suck at foreign languages is because we don’t need to.  We are spoiled rotten.  Everybody else speaks at least a little bit of English and if they don’t, then we probably don’t want to talk to them anyway.  We had the good sense to organize our country so that all of the states have the same native language.  You can travel 5,000 miles from Anchorage to Miami and still order a burger and fries and be understood.  In Switzerland, they have four native languages just one country.  This is just poor planning on the King’s part, I’m thinking.