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While many of you back in the States have been rightly very focused on the recent midterm elections, I have been in Europe fulfilling my college major's requirement that I spend a semester studying abroad. The week many of you were in GOTV mode I was traveling throughout Europe during my half term break. What follows after the fold are my reflections on traveling alone outside the anglophone bubble I had gotten used to and my realization of what exactly I was giving up when I decided to study abroad in London.

Just a little background on myself. I am a 22 year old senior at The College of New Jersey who has previously written here before about my experience entering the Obama campaign in 2008 and on my other experience when I traveled abroad to Spain.

The decision to study abroad for a student who is financially able to do it shouldn't hold any regrets or at least no second thoughts should it? After all my parents have been incredibly generous in helping me pay for my college expenses as well as my time abroad (Thanks Mom and Dad if/when you finally read this!). After all the program I am enrolled in has me living right in central London, the courses I'm taking take me to many really cool parts of the city, and the program is guaranteeing me an internship overseas which will look great on my resume. I've made good friends and have had an experience that will change my life for the better on the island of our former colonial masters.

That was until I decided to travel Europe alone for a week. Through the course of nine days I had traveled to the cities of Barcelona, Lisbon, Berlin, and Helsinki (The last destination being the main reason I traveled alone). All of those countries have something in common: they all use the euro, they all don't speak English as their primary language, and the overwhelming majority of people in those countries spoke to me in English. Excluding Spanish, I could count the words I knew in Portuguese, German, and Finnish on my fingers and they were speaking to me in flawless English.

Perhaps I should have been grateful that I was able to communicate with them. Perhaps I should have felt relieved that I can get by in a country like Finland without knowing how to speak one word of Finnish. However, that's not how I felt. What I felt was embarrassment. I was visiting their country where I should be reasonably expected to attempt to speak with them in their language and yet everyone was speaking to me in my language. I was embarrassed because I didn't know how to communicate with people in their language when they could do so in mine.

Prior to this semester I had spent the five weeks in the summer of 2009 studying abroad in Madrid, primarily to learn Spanish. I learned more about how to speak Spanish in those five weeks than I did in the last five years of high school and college courses in it combined. Despite being incredibly immersed in the Spanish language and culture, I am not fluent in the language though I'm much better than your average gringo. When asked in Spanish about my proficiency in the language my usual response is "Puedo hablar bastante español para hacer que quiero hacer en un país que habla español." ("I can speak enough Spanish to do what I want to do in a country that speaks Spanish")

Language wasn't that much of an issue when I arrived in Barcelona. After all I was familiar with the language and even though I was rusty having not spoken it in a while, I managed to do what I needed to do to get to my hostel and settle in for the night. The next day however I had gone out to a small store just to buy myself a snack when a sweet old American couple on holiday was having trouble communicating with the guy behind the counter. I was able to step in and translate and resolve the situation much to the relief of both parties. I can remember feeling incredibly empowered by that situation. This was the first opportunity that I have ever had to really put to good use my semi-bilingual ability and translate for people who had no knowledge of one another's language. I can just remember leaving that shop feeling incredibly good about myself.

I also noticed another thing when I was in Barcelona related to language. During my first full day there I was wearing a soccer jersey for Spain's national team (the only way you could ever get away with sporting a jersey for Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas in Barcelona). While wearing that shirt I kind of passed for a Spaniard in Barcelona if someone said something to me it was in Spanish and when I was doing something like asking for directions or ordering food it was in Spanish. The next day however I wore an England shirt and the way people interacted with me was different. Even when I would start a conversation in Spanish they would revert to English with me because something about me didn't seem like he knew the language very well. That was a contrast I found incredibly interesting.

Exit Barcelona, enter Lisbon. Lisbon is an incredibly cool city that was much more different than Spain than I thought. When I arrived in Portugal I thought that I could kind of get by with a working knowledge of Spanish.

I was wrong.

Knowing some Spanish helped me when it came to reading signs but in terms of talking to people it was damn near useless. Even just simple words that I thought were similar in many romance languages were not true of Portuguese. I thought a simple phrase like "thank you" would be similar to the Spanish, Italian, and French versions (gracias, grazie, and merci). It turns out in Portuguese it's "obrigado". I remember feeling a bit more uncomfortable and less confident when it came to talking to people just in English and less likely to go and talk to someone. I also started this habit when it came to ordering food in Portugal. In places where I could see the menu in English and Portuguese I would look for what I want in English and then order the corresponding dish by the Portuguese name. This would be a practice that I would end up repeating in Germany and Finland. Also on an unrelated note the Portuguese have the coolest name for a toasted ham and cheese sandwich ever: "Tosta Mista".

My journey to Finland (and thus my primary reason for traveling alone) was not nearly as crazy linguistically as I thought it would be. Even though their language looks and sounds completely insane, (10+ letter words are more the rule than the exception) everyone I spoke to there spoke to me in perfect English. One thing I saw there for the first time is how musical performers interact with a crowd that doesn't speak their own language. Even when a band's frontman can't speak the language they simply address the crowd in English and the crowd understands. By the way I must add that the folk metal concert I went to in Finland was an incredible experience and a pilgrimage to Scandinavia is something all true metal fans should strongly consider if they can afford it. I should also add that I went to Finland after I went to Germany and I'm saving my German story for last because it connects better with the overall point I'm trying to make.

It was when I went to Berlin when I had a moment of clarity about my attitude towards languages. Everything hit me all at once just having one small little interaction with a German guy I'll likely never meet again. That day I went to a little food stand right outside an S-Bahn (municipal light rail) station. I approached the stand in a way that somehow gave away the fact that I was foreign and didn't speak German. Here is the conversation that followed:

Him: Hello
Me: Guten Tag (good day) umm Coca Cola?
Him: How many? One, two, three..?
Me: Svei. (two)
Him: [now smiling] Ahh svei.
[I then pay for the two sodas]
Him: [something in German I couldn't understand]
Me: [smiling uncomfortably] Danke. (thank you)

When I got on that train I immediately realized what I did back at the station. My vocabulary in German is probably less than twenty words. I can't even say a complete sentence in German without directly quoting our former president John F. Kennedy. But in that conversation I insisted on speaking in German because I was in Germany even when this German man was more than willing to speak to me in English. I was insisting on making it much harder for myself. I realized that in my mind having to resort to speaking English in a non-English speaking country was a form of surrender. It is a tacit admission on my part that I am in their country but could not speak their language and I need THEM to accommodate to MY linguistic needs. Even though I was never in a situation like that sweet old American couple in Barcelona I could relate perfectly to how they must have felt, ignorant and unable to meet some of the cultural norms of a foreign society.

Others who have traveled abroad may not see anything wrong with speaking English in a non-anglophone country. To them I would ask them what if the situation were reversed? In other words what expectations do we place on foreigners who visit or emigrate to America with regards to language? In most areas of American society communication is done in English including in the tourism industry. In most shops, hotels, and restaurants you will be greeted in English and that is the language you would be expected to conduct your business in. If you're a foreign tourist visiting America you need to have a pretty good command of the English language before visiting here or else you better be traveling with someone else who speaks English. (Note: I realize I am excluding much of the Latino and other immigrant communities right now but I'm referring to the larger anglophone majority right here)

Compare that to Europe. In Germany this guy was able to tell I spoke English just from looking at me and he greeted me in English. When I went to check into a hostel the staff explained everything to me in English. If I had a question to ask anyone I could ask it in English and get an answer in my own language. If I needed to call their version of 911 for any reason I could probably explain the situation to the operator in English and they could dispatch emergency services without delay.

When I was in Berlin I was actually approached by a British couple asking me for directions in English. After explaining to them how to get to the Brandenberg Gate they replied to me "Danke." (thank you). I got the impression that they thought I was really German. But just imagine that for a second. This English couple felt confident enough that they could find a random German on the street to ask directions in a foreign language and get a response in that same language. Imagine a German couple trying to do that in America and think about how an average English-speaking American would react in the same situation.

In my home town in New Jersey there is a local restaurant that sold t-shirts with the restaurant's name and this quote on the back: "If I was in your country I would be speaking your language but you're in my country so please speak AMERICAN!" Having traveled through other peoples' countries I can't begin to tell you just how wrong that quote is. My experiences have told me that in America you're expected to know English but if you travel to any major city in Europe you reasonably expect many of the people there to know English. I could have easily done everything that I did in Lisbon, Berlin, and Helsinki without uttering a word of Portuguese, German, or Finnish. Hell in Finland I never even so much as uttered a word of Finnish to anyone.

Yet in much of America you get large parts of the country taking great pride in their monolingualism especially in the American right. There are some in the tea party who get absolutely despise having to press 1 for English when they call a customer service line that we've outsourced to India. One popular conservative idea is legislation making English the official language of the United States. During this past election the state of Oklahoma got a bit of publicity for their ballot initiative prohibiting the use of sharia law from their court system. The attention given to the sharia law initiative overshadowed another ballot initiative that would require that all official state actions be done in English. Conservatives also propose a requirement that all immigrants should learn English as part of their solution to the issue of immigration reform. They even go as far as someone like John Rocker (who back in the day managed to say something offensive about just about every type of minority in America in just four sentences much to the ire of Mets fans like me) starting a campaign called Speak English whose major goal is to get immigrants to speak English.

Now I don't have a problem with advising someone who recently emigrated here from Latin America to try and learn how to speak English. In fact I would even go so far as to argue that they should try to learn the language especially if they're young. Learning English is probably one of the best things that you could do for yourself in America and you'll probably be able to get a better paying job and get along better in society if you are bilingual. I would also say to Mr. Rocker and people who hold his same opinion "Hables Español". The responsibility of learning how to effectively communicate with your fellow humans is not a one-way street. I'd advise the rest of America to try to learn how to speak Spanish or another foreign language and to stop taking such pride in only being able to speak English. I would also say that regardless of an immigrant's legal status or linguistic abilities they deserve to be treated by society with the respect and dignity that they rightfully deserve as human beings that they don't often enough receive.

I think that American society needs to change its attitude towards foreign languages. I understand that English has become a de facto lingua franca in today's global economy and that makes it difficult for people in countries like the US and UK to learn other languages. However, that reality might very well change in the future especially with the emergence of countries like China, India, and Brazil gaining a rapidly increasing share of the global economy. From an individual standpoint knowledge and fluency in another language is a very powerful asset to have on your resume and can make you much more competitive in today's very difficult job market.

That being said it is incredibly difficult to learn a language just from taking courses. To really get good you have to live in an enviornment where most of what you do is in that other language. That is why I learned more Spanish in the five weeks I lived in Madrid than I did taking Spanish courses for five years before that in America. That is also the reason that people who emigrate here learn English far faster than many Americans can learn a foreign language without traveling. Often times that means traveling or working abroad for long periods of time and this comes over heavy financial constraints. I can completely understand why many people can't afford to travel and live away from home for extended periods of time especially in this economy and a family to take care of.

Here is the advice I would give those who can't learn another language themselves. If you have school-age children encourage them to learn another language while they're in school. If you're a college student who could afford it, STUDY ABROAD! Better yet study abroad in a non-English speaking country. The decision to study abroad was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. Not only did I acquire proficiency in another language but I learned a great deal more about myself and the way the world works. I would also advise those that don't know another language but are traveling to a non-English speaking country to at least make the effort to learn some basic words in the language of country you are going to. Just things like hello, good bye, please, thank you, yes, no, counting to ten, that sort of thing on Google before you leave. I found that if you approach someone abroad at least making an attempt to speak their language at first they'll like you much more because of that and will be more willing to help you. Also I would say to people who feel proud about knowing only how to speak English, traveling to another country is a humbling experience. When almost everyone you talk to is multilingual you will feel incredibly embarrassed and uneducated. Ignorance is most certainly not bliss.

So having now considered all of this should I have really studied abroad in London next semester? In fact my academic adviser at my school recommended that I not do the program that I am doing and instead recommended La Universidad de San Andres in Argentina. I would not go so far as to say that I should not have made the decision that I have made. In fact one of the major reasons I chose my program in London was because I would get a good internship to bolster my resume which I don't think is as strong as it should be. The experience I'll get managing many aspects of a small business abroad will be great for my future career but so too would perfect fluency in Spanish. The decision I made was a trade-off that I accepted when I decided on London but it is only now that I am realizing the full size and scope of that trade-off. It just took the feeling of me feeling like a stranger in a strange land abroad and away from my comfort zone to put that trade-off into the proper perspective.

I think that no matter what choice I made earlier this year, I will have ended up benefiting enormously from studying abroad. As someone who had to years and years of Spanish classes and hated most of it, (and still hates Spanish classes) I find myself with a renewed interest in the language. The contrast between the sense of empowerment I felt in Barcelona with the sense of ignorance I felt in the rest of the continent was most enlightening to me. I can now more fully understand the advice my adviser gave me and I would like to apologize to you Dr. Potter for taking it and ignoring it too lightly (If you ever end up reading this). All that being said I do find it quite ironic that choosing to study abroad in England has given me such a deep perspective on the power of foreign languages.

Originally posted to billyleeblack16 on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 04:38 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I wish Americans would see all these (12+ / 0-)

    bilingual communities as an asset- they really are for people who are trying to learn or maintain a second language, myself included.  

    We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. -Stephen Hawking

    by satanicpanic on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 04:45:20 PM PST

  •  Finnish Fun Fact (9+ / 0-)

    Unlike most languages in Europe Finnish is NOT a Indo-European language but a Uralic one making it related to, among other languages, Estonian, Saami, and even Hungarian.

  •  the most maddening place i've been is macau (12+ / 0-)

    linguistically speaking. signs in both chinese characters and roman letters, and i'm stuck staring like an idiot at them because i only know (lame high school) spanish and mandarin (fairly fluent), not portuguese and cantonese. but it's so close that i can't shake the feeling of being utterly illiterate.

    surf putah, your friendly neighborhood central valley samizdat

    by wu ming on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 04:57:29 PM PST

    •  My idiot moment in Belgium (4+ / 0-)

      One time we took a local train in Belgium. We were waiting on a platform when suddenly they made some urgent sounding announcement through the intercom. They dutifully repeated that same announcement in 3 languages (I'm guessing french, german and maybe flemish?), and people started scaterring in all directions. We were hoping for an english version, but none came. Luckily some locals saw us staring like a couple of idiots, and mercifully translated the announcement to us (we had to walk to another platform to catch the train).

    •  My mother teaches mandarin at a private school (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wu ming, penguins4peace

      And a few years back, when the first wave of young americans started seeking their fortunes in China, a number of her former students wrote her back and complained to her- all that chinese that they dutifuylly studied in school didn't look anything like the chinese characters they saw in China!

      Nowadays she teaches the simplified font to the students. Of course, the funny thing is- a lot of mainlanders are starting to use the complex fonts more and more (storefront signs for example).

      •  it's way better to start with the traditional one (0+ / 0-)

        once you know them, the simplifcations have a certain logic to them, sound or calligraphic or otherwise. if you start with simplified, you end up scriptically crippled, and it's ten times the effort to deduce how to complicate a given character.

        of couse these days, kids just type it in roman letters and use the computer to select the right character. huge mistake, if you ask me (nobody does).

        surf putah, your friendly neighborhood central valley samizdat

        by wu ming on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 07:27:15 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Lithuanian Fun Fact (9+ / 0-)

    Off Indo-European languages, Lithuanian has changed the least.  Because of this Lithuanian speakers can understand simple phrases in Sanskrit.

    In fact linguist say that if you want to hear how the Indo-Europeans sounded, go talk to a Lithuanian peasant.

    Language fun facts rock my world!

  •  Some experiences to parallel yours (8+ / 0-)

    I really prefer to learn some of the language of a country if I am going to travel there - at least enough to be polite and ask someone if they speak English.  So I have some functional minimum in at least French, Italian and Spanish.
    But when I went to the Netherlands, I gave up, partly because Dutch is really hard and partly because everyone really does speak English - and often a few other languages as well.  I've always thought it more polite to ask if someone spoke English rather than assume they did, but in the Netherlands, it became silly to do that, since everyone did.  Or at least everyone under 60.
    History: The Dutch experience in WWII was so horrific that they came out of it intensely motivated to prevent future wars in Europe and saw multilingualism as one part of that effort.  This may not be accurate, but one older Dutch person told me that in the 50s and 60s the requirement for high school graduation was functional competence in 3 foreign languages, (English, French and German) and they expressed regret that it's been diluted down to only one now.
    One other note for travelers: the English fluency that the diarist found in Europe is still much more true in the big cities than in the country.
    In 2004 we did a 3 week bike tour in Tuscany, mostly in very small towns, and I went for one six-day stretch without using a word of English except to speak to my wife.  I had taken a semester of conversational Italian just before the trip and learned enough to get all my basic needs met at least.

    "I was asked what I thought of the mainstream media. I said I thought it would be a good idea" - Amy Goodman.

    by Chico David RN on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 05:20:20 PM PST

    •  My next (2+ / 0-)

      'grab the basics if nothing else' language is going to be Maori.  Damn hard to find instructional materials on though, none of the bookstores actually keep anything in stock, you have to order it, which I finally did, and now have an instructional CD, though nothing up to Rosetta Stone levels.

      Wow, Independents put down the centrist Blue Dogs, and somehow liberals are to blame?

      by Ezekial 23 20 on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 05:38:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  One time I had to ask directions in the Netherlan (3+ / 0-)

      I had to ask a woman who was collecting fares at the back of a public bus. She was a middle age looking black lady. She opened her mouth, and out came flawless, BBC style english. That was impresssive.

      •  A former co-worker is married to a Dutch guy (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        SoCalSal

        He has been all over the world as a business consultant, and was telling me that when he recently spoke to a Dutch business group and was expected to deliver his remarks in Dutch, he actually found it difficult to do so, since he uses English so much more than Dutch when he's talking about business matters.  If there is anybody in the Netherlands who doesn't speak almost flawless English, I certainly haven't met them.

        Still PROUD to be a Democrat!

        by leevank on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 05:56:24 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  My first trip to the Netherlands (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      camlbacker

      back in 1989, we took a canal boat tour in Amsterdam. The tour guide was doing her spiel in English, German, French, and Italian, and probably another language or two.  I thought she had memorized a script in each language, but then people started asking her questions in the different languages, and she replied easily in each.  I was dazzled and embarrassed by my language inadequacy.

      Re: your bit of history, I believe the Dutch started their language education well before WWII.  My grandpa was born & raised in Rotterdam, where he studied German in school (don't think he studied French, though.)  He left school as a teenager and got a job as a cabin boy on a steamship.  After crossing back & forth five or six times, he got off in New York in 1911, and never went back (so I am the granddaughter of an illegal alien!)  I am pretty sure he spoke no English when he arrived in New York, at age 17.  What I remember of him was that he spoke perfect, unaccented English, and since he'd Anglicized his name, no one would ever have known he was not a native born American.  Maybe that language ability is innate with the Dutch.

      In any case, this diary makes me feel guilty for not keeping up with my Spanish, at which I was pretty good, and the bit of French and German I used to have.  Right, fire up the Rosetta Stone!!!!

  •  Untold years ago, I was (6+ / 0-)

    catching a train in the Netherlands and was not sure if I was on the right platform. Without thinking, I started asking a railway employee about it in English, and the man responded in Dutch [although he understood and spoke English perfectly]. He was just reminding me where I was and it struck both of us as funny. We both cracked up and the conversation went on that way - me English and him Dutch and both of us laughing - until I understood that I was at the right place. I've never forgotten that delightful man even if he was laughing AT me.
    However, Never try to learn Irish as it is one insane language.

    "We have cast our lot with something bigger than ourselves" - President Obama, July 30, 2010

    by Overseas on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 05:25:11 PM PST

    •  Irish Is an Indo-European Language (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Overseas

      Irish is one of the last surviving examples of the Celtic branch of Indo-European.  While it may appear crazy to us, those sound changes are actually pretty ritualized in the language, so they make perfect sense to native speakers.  It's no different than English, whose orthography makes the language virtually impenetrable to a non-native speaker.  We've got the same sound attached to multiple letter combinations, with no rhyme or reason either, other than tradition.

      "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

      by PrahaPartizan on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 09:34:55 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Attempting to speak Chinese in China (4+ / 0-)

    is useless usually. They think you are speaking English so they don't even bother to listen.

    "If we can't be free at least we can be cheap." Zappa

    by Zwoof on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 05:30:26 PM PST

    •  And from what I understand, if you don't ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SLKRR

      get the tones just right, you're probably speaking gibberish anyway.

      The father of a good friend of mine was born in the U.S., but spoke Cantonese at home when he was a child.  He remained fluent in Cantonese, and learned several other languages, but could never manage to learn Mandarin, since the tonal system is apparently quite different from Cantonese.

      Still PROUD to be a Democrat!

      by leevank on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 05:52:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  on my brief trip though (southern) Spain (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    truong son traveler

    I spoke Arabic.

    Great diary.

  •  I never took Spanish in school, but ... (4+ / 0-)

    have picked up some of it on several trips to Latin America and in reading phrase books in preparation for going on those trips.  My experience is that other than in tourist locations, if you ask someone whether they speak English (in either English or Spanish), you're likely to get a simple "no."  But if you attempt to speak to them in Spanish, and then get stuck (which doesn't take me very long), I frequently find that they actually know a little English (at least if I'm talking to a middle class person), and that between my minimal Spanish and the little English they remember from some long-ago school course, it's possible to communicate.  My theory is that once I've demonstrated my willingness to embarrass myself in their language, they're more likely to be willing to embarrass themselves in mine.

    One piece of advice to those who have finished their foreign language learning relatively recently:  You've got to use it or you'll lose it.  I took four years of German many years ago, and for several years after graduating from college, I could read a German newspaper or magazine, or have a reasonable conversation with a German tourist.  But now that I'm over 60, I've lost almost all of it.  In fact, I can get along better with the Spanish that I've casually picked up (since I've actually used it in recent years) than I can in the German that I laboriously studied.

    Several years ago, my wife and I were in the Visitor's Center of a National Park, and heard one of the rangers asking if anybody there spoke German.  At first I said nothing, since there had been a number of German tourists just about everywhere we'd been, but then when he asked the second time, I volunteered to try.  It turns out that there was supposed to be some German scientist arriving there, he was late, and they had called his home in Germany, where they'd gotten his housekeeper, who spoke not a word of English.  And try as I might, although I could tell that she was speaking German, I couldn't remember enough German to ask whether she knew when he was now scheduled to arrive.  It was really embarrassing that my German skills had deteriorated to that extent.

    Still PROUD to be a Democrat!

    by leevank on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 05:48:46 PM PST

  •  interesting anecdotes (3+ / 0-)

    While wearing that shirt I kind of passed for a Spaniard in Barcelona if someone said something to me it was in Spanish and when I was doing something like asking for directions or ordering food it was in Spanish. The next day however I wore an England shirt and the way people interacted with me was different. Even when I would start a conversation in Spanish they would revert to English with me because something about me didn't seem like he knew the language very well.

    I've lived in Brazil for almost 8 years now - enough that I've picked up the local accent.  Here in the Northeast, where American tourists are rare, people in the street will just converse with me like I am Brazilian.  If they pick up something odd in the way I speak, they may ask if I am from the South (Southern Brazilians are generally very fair-skinned, Germanic or Eastern-European descent).  

    If I go to Rio, however, I am treated like a tourist.  Everyone tries to speak with me in English, and if I respond in Portuguese they get this kind of stunned look for a moment like they can't believe it... then continue on asking question in English.  One hotel receptionist spoke with me for several minutes, she asking questions in English and me answering in Portuguese, before finally asking me, "you speak Portuguese?"

    When I arrived in Portugal I thought that I could kind of get by with a working knowledge of Spanish.

    I was wrong.  Knowing some Spanish helped me when it came to reading signs but in terms of talking to people it was damn near useless.

    Knowing Portuguese (from Brazil) is also damn near useless when talking to people from Portugal.  They have one of the thickest accents imaginable, and they tend to "eat" all of the vowels.  A friend had to ask me several times if I wanted ice cream before I understood him - the Brazilian word is sorvete but in Portugal they call it gelado.  The problem is that they pronounce it something like "zhlad."  The some goes for a lot of other words.  

    "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." -- Dom Hélder Câmara

    by SLKRR on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 05:55:21 PM PST

  •  It's really an experience when people get to (4+ / 0-)

    travel and see just how the rest of the world lives. Yes, others are far more advanced with language studies that the majority of Americans.  Both my wife and myself were schooled with our native language first, and then English second.  We both respectively took French and Spanish in school as well. I could not imagine not having the ability to communicate in at least one other language albeit maybe not fluently today, but as the saying goes; if you don't use it...

    (but it does come in handy when traveling) .

    Kudos to you, and keep traveling and learning. Be our good ambassador to the world so that many may see and learn from you that there are good people in this country as well.  

    Be safe out there.

    "I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean I love the country but I can't stand the scene." - Leonard Cohen (Democracy)

    by LamontCranston on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 05:59:46 PM PST

  •  My experience in HS German... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SLKRR, billyleeblack16, SoCalSal

    ...really soured me on the language.  The teacher was also the football coach; all the jocks took his class because he'd let them goof off.

    They tormented me (I got hit, slapped, and spit on) when the teacher's back was turned.  I complained to him about it; his response was, "Well, Warren, you shouldn't have made them angry."

    That was my German experience.  But I lived in India for many years and learned to speak and read Hindi (badly, but sufficient for my needs).  That was a wonderful and very important part of my life.

    Good diary!

    Freedom isn't "on the march." Freedom dances.

    by WarrenS on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 06:01:59 PM PST

  •  when you get back to Jersey and NYC area, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SoCalSal

    jump at every chance you can to speak Spanish. Like you, I spent some time in a Spanish-speaking country years ago, and then was back in NY area where there are endless opportunities to practice the language. I never took it in school but picked up a lot, altho a little fracturada, just from people. Make friends, fall in love w/ Spanish-speaking people  and la lengua will be yours siempre.

    "Para dialogar, preguntad primero; después... escuchad." - Antonio Machado

    by Valatius on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 06:02:05 PM PST

  •  In my wife's home village (5+ / 0-)

    in rural Thailand one might hear 3 languages in one conversation, Thai, Lao and a dialect of Khmer. None of the people who live there are well educated but grew up in an environment where all three of these languages are used.

    A fourth language is sometimes encountered also. Not sure about the spelling. It is Souoi, a dying language spoken by the people who, many years ago, caught and tamed wild elephants. There are no wild elephants today but they still raise and train them and have thus far been able to sustain the use of their language.

    •  Reminds me of a lunch we attended in Paris. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      truong son traveler, SoCalSal

      My husband & I took our teenagers on their first overseas trip, for spring break last year.  We were mostly in London, but took the Chunnel train to Paris for a day, where we met up with one of my husband's business associates who'd arranged a tour for us.  We had lunch in Montmartre with him (from Luxembourg but living in Germany), the tour guide (an English woman, fluent in French), and the man's daughter (German/Luxembourger, going to school in Paris.)

      They were all tremendously charming, but my kids and I were all dazzled by the ease with which the three of them switched between English, French, and German.  Made us feel wholly inadequate.

  •  In Texas, I speak Spanish all day every day (3+ / 0-)

    it was the best career move ever to learn Spanish and secured my employment ahead of those who speak only English. I started in High school, and then went on to study in Mexico City.

    I agree with what you say in your diary. However, you have the benefit of education. The population I work with are mostly monolingual in Spanish, and have lived in the United States for years. Most of them have only finished Primaria, or elementary school in Mexico. Many of them only went to the third grade or less. These are adults, who can barely read. When I try to speak English to them, they get embarrassed. I often wonder what it would take to empower them. Their children are likely to under perform in school and drop out early. Maybe it is the third generation that might break out of poverty and illiteracy.

    Congratulations on your education and ability to travel. You have a rare opportunity that will benefit you no matter what field you work in.  Thanks for the interesting diary.

    We have nowhere else to go... this is all we have. (Margaret Mead)

    by bruised toes on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 06:05:26 PM PST

    •  Thanks for the perspective (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SoCalSal

      It's easy to say that others should learn another language when you have a tertiary education. I can't possibly imagine how hard such a task would be if I can barely read even in my own language. I would like to thank you for your work trying to improve the lives of people in America who often get ignored or unfairly demonized.

  •  Nicely written. Well done :) nt (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bruised toes, billyleeblack16

    'If you want to be a hero, well just follow me.' - J. Lennon

    by Clive all hat no horse Rodeo on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 06:18:00 PM PST

  •  power of foreign languages (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    billyleeblack16

    While I agree with most of what the diarist said, and the comments, I am nevertheless disappointed by the naivete and folkloristic  nature of some of the comments.  Icelandic has changed a great deal since Viking times, for example; the reason that Icelanders can read the medieval sagas with ease is that the WRITTEN form of the language has not changed much.  I can guarantee that if a 21st century Icelander were to confront his 12th century ancestor, neither would understand much of what the other was saying.  And it is absolutely false to say that a Lithuanian, by virtue of speaking Lithuanian, would understand very much Sanskrit.  But apart from these infelicities, the thing I find most appalling here is the implicit assumption that "foreign languages" are those closely related languages spoken by our linguistic and cultural relatives in Europe.  Despite their importance in the modern world, these languages are a vanishingly small percentage of the languages spoken in the world, all of which deserve to be studied and learned by Americans and others.  Tagalog?  Khmer?  
    Quechua?  Uzbek? All are the vessels of unique human experiences, and some knowledge of all can be priceless in the right circumstances.  The world is more than Europe, shouldn't we have learned that by now?

     

  •  Tipped & Rec'd for wearing a Real Madrid jersey (0+ / 0-)

    I went to a few Merengue matches, back when Hugo Sanchez and El Buitre were playing there.

    My ability to speak Spanish has gotten me jobs over monolingual candidates.

    And our language abilities here in Utah keep our state from becoming a Mississippi with worse weather.

  •  billylee, you are very fortunate to live, travel (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    billyleeblack16

    and attend university in Europe; you seem to understand and appreciate how fortunate that is. And London next semester!

    As others have written in comments, when it comes to second (or third or fourth) language, use it or lose it! That's maybe why most Europeans are gracious about speaking English to us Americans; they are willing to keep up the practice.

    I grew up in an English-speaking family and became proficient in French through high school and university courses. Decades passed with no opportunity to speak French, then came my first trip to France. I "brushed up", but that turned to little result from the moment of getting into a cab at Orly airport with an impatient African driver who spoke very rapidly, with a heavy accent. The rest of the stay was much better than that cab ride. I could read French, and understand those who spoke lentement, but to my chagrin could not remember French words quickly enough to keep up my side of an extended conversation.

    Japan was quite an experience in not knowing the language and being rescued by very polite and kind non-English speaking Japanese. My traveling companion had lived there for a few years, so no problem when we were together. But my solo weekend trip on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto was a mite tense at times with no signs in English, dependent on a non-English speaking seatmate to tell me when the Kyoto station was coming up, finding my hotel. Another time, I got totally lost walking alone in a residential area of Tokyo until a young man (who spoke no English) walked me a couple of miles right to the door of my hotel. That was one of many kindnesses I received in Japan. We manage to communicate when we want to. I'd go back in a minute.

    So billyleeblack, keep up your travels and if you can, live in Europe for a while after you're done with university. Bonne chance!

    Great diary, btw.

    Slavery is the legal fiction that a person is property. Corporate personhood is the legal fiction that property is a person. -Jan Edwards

    by SoCalSal on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 07:23:45 PM PST

  •  We are incredibly arrogant in our (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    billyleeblack16

    ignorance.  I'm 60 and this problem was the same when I was your age.  The difference now is that so many counties have been teaching their kids English, while we have gotten more and more resistant to teaching our kids a 'foreign' language.  

    When my students used to ask me why they had to learn another language I'd tell them that it would look great on their resumé.  If they were really good at it, they might get a job as a translator and get travel all over on someone else's dime.  It also helps with their English grammar and usage.  Usually by the time I'd gotten through these reasons, they were tired of me lecturing them and just wanted to get on with the lessons.  :-)

    -7.62, -7.28 "Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly." -Langston Hughes

    by luckylizard on Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 07:54:04 PM PST

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