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:
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.