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.

Languages That Should Be Taught in High Schools But Aren’t

So, I’ve recently been thinking about how much people treat foreign language study as a chore. Universities and high schools often require at least two consecutive years of the study of the same language for admission and graduation respectively. I believe that this treatment of such a field can be remedied by freeing up the choices that students have in this respect. This means, you can’t just offer Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese and expect them to be happy with it. People like to have a lot of choices and  might want to learn some other language. Most importantly, why are we only teaching three languages? French is not very useful outside of France, Canada, Switzerland, and a few African countries (sorry, French speakers, but it’s true). Spanish is in a similar position, although it has the advantage of being more  intelligible with respect to Portuguese and Italian, and having more applications within the United States, specifically. Mandarin Chinese is indeed useful in China, a major economic and political entity, and its introduction into American education systems is admirable. But this is only the first step.

However, first of all, I want to make something clear: Spanish and French don’t need to be removed from the curriculum. They are still useful, in their own ways, but in the context of the whole world, they lack in usability. People should still learn them, whatever their reasons are. However, we should introduce more useful languages (or at least make these more widely taught), which I’m going to  list and explain. Remember, in the context of the United States as whole, I regard these as true, because the languages below have a greater number of uses overall than Spanish or French. Part of my definition of usefulness includes how much you can use the language in the world.

1) Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew

OK, while it certainly doesn’t need to be each of these in the same school, but there’s no denying that these would be extremely useful. Arabic is important, because of negotiations and diplomacy in the Arab League nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. Farsi is also important, because with the right tactics, America could actually enter into peaceful relations with Iran. We don’t even have an embassy or formal diplomatic relations with them, for God’s sake! We have an embargo on trade with them, which was set up in 1995. Lastly, Hebrew is useful for similar reasons, as if we could have more diplomats in Israel to help resolve tensions between Israelites and Palestinians and also between Israel and surrounding Muslim countries. The Middle Eastern languages in general, I feel, are powerful diplomatic tools.

2) Japanese and Korean

These two languages are native to two very important nations that directly concern the United States. Not only that, Japan and South Korea are formidable world powers in their own rights. In both nations, there are a number of growing business opportunities. Not only that, they can be easier alternatives to learning Mandarin Chinese, especially Korean.

3) German and Russian

German might come as a surprise, because many people in Germany can probably speak English pretty well. However, it is my firm belief that communication is always done better in the language of the country you’re visiting. It’s kind of a matter of politeness. Russian can be useful, because not only are there economic opportunities in Russia, it’s also possible to work with Russian in the diplomatic field, because Slavic languages, particularly the ones of the former Soviet Republics, are mutually intelligible with Russian.

It is certainly important to consider the regional uses of these languages. Korean will be more useful than Russian to a physician on the West Coast, due to a larger Korean population. But that’s for another post. The key idea is that the listed languages are useful, because their global contexts are much greater. In high school, most people have not decided what they want to do, and having a language that is useful in relatively high number of contexts is invaluable.

If you have any thoughts on this yourself, or if you think there are any other languages you think should be included in schools, do say so in the comments!

Language Barriers

I’ve often been asked about why I think foreign language education is important. While I could certainly come up with quite a few reasons, I think one of the more prominent ones is when you encounter language barriers. This can be in person, over the internet, or in signs and other written situations. Human experience is defined by what we take in and what we understand, and so we should aim to understand as much as we can. Besides, you are bound to end up in a situation where you need to use foreign language, because the other person can’t understand you or you need some vital information that’s on a sign written in an another language. Whether it’s business negotiations, diplomacy, or simply communicating as a tourist, learning a foreign language is a huge asset. Overcoming the language barrier is the first step. In this post, I’m going to talk about the places where language barriers the least and most prevalent. I won’t be discussing the rural areas of certain countries, because that’s simply a given.

1) China, Japan and Korea: Greatest Language Barrier

Surprisingly, even though these countries have rapidly progressed in their political structures and economies, the practice of using English, or for that matter any other language, is not very widespread. The education system does require English-language instruction in these nations, but many people prefer to speak their native language due to not feeling confident in their ability to speak English and as a simple matter of preference. English instruction in these nations, from what I’ve heard, is very traditional. In other words, people in China, Japan, and Korea are as inclined to use English as much as people in the United States are inclined to use French.

2) The Nations of Scandinavia and Germany/Austria/The Netherlands: The Weakest Language Barrier

When it comes to going abroad in Europe, Scandinavia is the best when it comes using English with foreigners. With top-notch education systems (which is not to say Japan and Korea don’t have good ones), students in Scandinavian countries, generally speaking, come out of schooling speaking decent if not perfect English. The same goes for Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. This can probably be accounted for by the fact that German and the Scandinavian languages have a common history with English.  Surprisingly, France, Spain, and Italy are not as well-versed in English, shown in statistics. This is probably because Iberian/Arabic influences (Spanish), Gallic influence (French), and Italic influences (Italian) have caused the parent language (Latin, specifically Vulgar Latin) to diverge more significantly, and therefore farther from English, which borrows more from Germanic, Greek, and classical Latin roots.

3) India: The Weakest Language Barrier in Asia

Unlike the East Asian countries, such as China, Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, India has come to use English extensively. Signs are  written in English, sometimes not even as a translation of the state language. The education system mandates the learning of English from first grade all the way to twelfth grade. In addition, people must take yet another foreign language to graduate from college. Most people in India speak English and are perfectly willing to communicate in English, although they will use their own language at other times. Gotta keep your secrets, you know?

4) Latin America: The Biggest Language Barrier in the Americas

Ironically, even though Spain is pretty good about its people knowing English (although certainly not as much as other European countries), getting around without knowing Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil) is hard in Latin America. Many Latin American countries are in the Low Proficiency bracket on the EF English Proficiency Index. So I highly suggest hitting the books on Spanish if you go to Latin America without knowing any first.

5) The Middle East: The Biggest Language Barrier

For some, this may not come as a surprise. The EF English Proficiency Index shows that several Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, and Egypt are in the Low or Very Low Proficiency brackets. Saudi Arabia and Iraq are at the very bottom of the list in the Very Low Proficiency bracket. This is why it is all the more imperative that people learn to speak Arabic and/or Farsi.

So, that’s my say on this topic. I’ll probably have something again this week, so I hope you look forward to it.