Americans and Their English

When I went to Italy last summer, and I went to get some water from a local grocery store in Rome for my mom (the tap water is disgusting), I overheard an American couple complaining about the lack of English speakers in Italy. Their reasons included the following:

“English is an international language, shouldn’t everyone speak it?”

“Italian is like Latin, right? Shouldn’t it be really easy for them to speak English?”

“Italians must hate Americans, or something.”

While I certainly didn’t get up in arms about this, it was mildly disturbing.  English speakers, for some reason specifically from America, expect that everyone in other countries speaks English. This is not at all reasonable for someone to expect. Now don’t get me wrong, this goes for ALL English speakers, not just Americans. Actually, for any speaker of any language expecting to find other people to speak his or her language.

Let me address the first complaint: English may be an international language, but that does not mean everyone can, are confident about speaking, or even want to use English. Italy is on the lower end of the English Proficiency Index (not that I expect people to know this) anyway. China, Japan, and Korea are noted in studies for having many students who academically do very well in English, but in practice are very reserved about using or don’t want to use English.  They have their reasons, and people should respect those reasons, however odd they may be.

Now for the second issue: Just because languages are at all similar doesn’t make it easy for people to learn or speak it. English only borrows from Latin, and was never a part of the Romance language family. It’s a Germanic language, so the only people who one can reasonably to expect to speak English easily are people from Germany and Northern Europe. Even then, one shouldn’t expect them to.

The last complaint I found completely and utterly preposterous. Most people I’ve met, and most that one is likely to meet, have the rationale not to arbitrarily dislike someone they’ve never met. Of course, there are racists and such. Some people in America think that people of other countries intrinsically hate Americans because America is overall a more powerful nation, with a higher standard of living, and a considerable amount of wealth. They might have deeper reasons, you never know. But meeting other people and having preconceived notions, especially that those people don’t like you, is a serious impediment to communication. I could easily assume that all white people look down on me because of the color of my skin, but I don’t, because not all white people are like that.

I suppose my point is that English speakers shouldn’t feel entitled to being able to talk to others in their own language away from home. English speakers should learn to speak other languages, because the native speakers of the language are likely to appreciate it much more if you speak to them in their language. I appreciate the effort Italians made to speak to me in English, but I spoke in Italian, because that’s what they’re more comfortable using. It’s rather like adhering to another person’s rules in their house.

Foreign Language Word of the Day: Day 11

Sorry for the lack of words recently. I attended the Fanime Convention in San Jose.

Italiano – Parola del Giorno: la grappa

A type of grape-based pomace brandy that is made by distilling the skins, seeds, and pulp left over from winemaking after pressing the grapes.

Español – Palabra del Día: zapatear

To stamp or tap (your feet), and very loosely, to tap-dance. It usually refers to the footwork in flamenco, called zapateado.

Kannada – I Dinada Padaa: madve-mane

Literally meaning, “wedding house,” this word is used to describe the setting in which the ceremony takes place, which very well could be the groom’s own home. So yes, a church could be one, but only in a very stretched context, because the concept of a madve-mane has some Hindu connotations and other traditions associated with it.

This I Believe

Recently, my English teacher assigned a personal essay based off an essay prompt from the 1960s, called, “This I Believe,” that encouraged people to send in 500 word essays detailing a personal belief. My teacher encouraged us to make it highly personal in nature, written in your speaking voice, and delve into the inner nature of the belief being written about. It must detail how you came to your philosophy. The original invitation requested these essays to enrich the lives of others,  give them some form of wisdom or food for thought, and to stimulate the formation of personal beliefs. Perhaps a bit typically, I wrote mine on language, so I’m posting my essay here for you to read:

Yake aunge Kannada baralla? Aun kivda, pedda?” (Why doesn’t he speak Kannada? Is he deaf, stupid?) elderly relatives asked my parents in the family house in Madras. I heard and understood every word, but could not form them in a reply.

Sumne English-li helamma, Shashank. Aurge Kannada-li heltini nin-gosra.” (Just say it in English, Shashank. I’ll tell them in Kannada for you.) my parents would assure me. And I felt miserable because of it. My world was fragmented to me in those days.

I believe that language shapes people, because I myself was shaped by it. I could not speak until I was around three years old, and when I was older, I couldn’t speak Kannada very well, cutting me off from my family and background. It was then that I realized the effect of language on people, especially myself. A lot of people take speaking your mother tongue for granted, but it has always meant much more to me than just a skill.

Years later, I speak Kannada a little better, but not as well as I’d like. I developed a passion for language, and right now, I’m learning three at the same time. It’s not just because I want to look smart, or make myself look more impressive. I believe in connecting with other people on that basic level. I understand someone more deeply in his or her own language. I think in terms of the languages I know. I work to learn languages to learn from the world. I cannot reject language, for I must aspire to know others as I know myself.

The fact there are multiple languages broadens the range of self-expression. I believe in the power that language holds over human beings, to capture the exact way one feels in one or two words. Language retells history, experience, and feeling. I am humbled by the solemnity of sajda, and the absoluteness of sifr. Through language, can I feel duende within myself. You can’t explain these words, because their meanings are fundamentally attached to the way people use them and say them. I believe that to speak a language is to vocalize experience and convey feelings in ways that other arts cannot. Sankocha and aumana are unique to my experience as a Kannadiga, and they hold special meaning for me. Kob-jasti is not just a word my parents use to describe me when I’m being condescending or cocky. Shani, Saturn, is not just a planet to me, and mundede is so much more than just a widow. 

Through language, I can understand the full range of the human experience. I can carry myself with sprezzatura, perhaps one day know koi no yokan, and feel saudade thereafter. To use language, for me, is to live life and understand others in their own tongue, how they really are. I believe in the power of language to change people as it has done me, and create mutual, complete understanding between people of each and every background.

Foreign Language Word of the Day: Day 10

Day 10!

Italiano – Parola del Giorno: il cavatappi

A corkscrew or bottle screw.

Español – Palabra del Día: sefardí/sefardita

A noun or an adjective that refers to Spanish Jews, also called Sephardic Jews, most of whom were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, though there are still small communities today. Sephardic Jews traditionally spoke a variant of Spanish called Judaeo-Spanish, also called Ladino. The language is endangered right now, as it is archaic in some aspects, and most Sephardic Jews would speak Castilian Spanish anyway.

Kannada – I Dinada Padaa: mangalarthi

The sacred fire held on a plate or holder during Hindu religious ceremonies. The fire is passed around to give the blessing of God to worshippers, who put their hands over the fire and either touch their forehead or run their hands over their head.

Foreign Language Word of the Day: Day 9

Here are the words for Day 9!

Italiano – Parola del Giorno: la tarantella

A Southern Italian dance, usually in 6/8, accompanied by tambourines, and said to be inspired by behaviors and movements resulting from the bite of a spider in summer. It’s sort of related to the word tarantola, which actually means tarantula, even though spider is ragno.

Español – Palabra del Día: (el) flamenco

This word is quite varied in meaning, as it can refer to the dance from southern Spain, a flamingo, the Flemish language, or a Fleming (a person from Flanders). It can also mean Flemish (as an adjective),  [cocky, insolent, defiant, or impertinent in colloquial slang], and ironically, also charming.

Kannada – I Dinada Padaa: torna

A door ornament hung on the doorframe of many Hindu households, usually in the form of leaves on a thread or line. The leaves are often decorated with the image of a god or some other religious symbol.

Foreign Language Word of the Day: Day 9

Here are the words for Day 9!

Italiano – Parola del Giorno: immaginare

to imagine

Español – Palabra del Día: velar

to stay awake or up/keep someone else awake or up

Note: desvelar can also mean to keep someone awake, and desvelarse can mean to stay awake or not be able to sleep.

Kannada – I Dinada Padaa: keriadu

to scratch/itch