The New Lingua Franca (or, In Defense of Americans)
My father is in a Rotary Club back home. One year, he served as President of his club and got to attend the annual Rotary International Convention, where he met club presidents from all over the world. The most memorable thing about the weekend for him was not a speaker he heard or a personal connection he forged, but a running joke throughout the entire convention: if an attendee only spoke one language, it was English, and they were an American.
Fast forward a decade or so, and I'm living in France, traveling at every opportunity I get. I went to London, Edinburgh, Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Grenoble, and Tubingen......one of these things is not like the other. The latter city was the only one I visited where I did not speak the official language of the country -- Tubingen is an old college town in Germany. (Random? Not really: I was visiting an old German friend of mine who was attending university there.)
When I arrived at the beginning of my week-long stay, I was immediately pleasantly surprised by two things. First, my friend's English was still perfectly fluent, even though he had been using it sparingly since he studied abroad at my American high school. Second, both of his roommates and most of the people I met spoke very proficient English, enough to have a normal conversation about everything, from food to politics to movies to death metal to cemeteries to hang gliding. My knowledge of German included how to say hello, please, thank you, and I don't speak German; and how to recognize any words that mildly resembled English. Yes, I speak French, but how many college campuses could you walk onto in the States and find that the majority of the student body was fluent in another language? Are Americans really that uncultured and ignorant?
Possibly, but I'd like to defend Americans for a moment with the explanation of a catch-22. Now, every student that I met at the Tubingen university was proficient, if not fluent, in English. They tended to know quite a bit about current events and government in the US, if only the name of our president and that health care and immigration were huge debates at the time. Conversely, not many Americans are fluent in German, and there wouldn’t be many who could name the political leader of Germany right now (it’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for the interested). But everyone in the world looks to English as the language to know, to America as the country to know about. Are you a little French student? Learn English. Are you a German university student? Study about America. Are you a Korean businessman? Learn English. Which country has the highest number of English speakers in the world? China. Et cetera. If you’re American, there are certain areas or languages that should interest you more than others (the EU and China and the Middle East, for example, with their respective languages), but you don’t have one superpower to look to. The need to learn another language to be understood by more of the world is not nearly as pressing.
I’m not defending the inability of some Americans to see past the end of their own nose. But English is, and has been for a while now, the new lingua franca. Everyone wants to learn it. Those who already know it don't see foreign language learning as such a great necessity. I speak French, and I'm learning Arabic. I can claim a reasonable excuse to not know German. Or Chinese, or Farsi, or Italian, or Spanish.
Might the day come when everyone communicates solely in one language? I don't know. I actually hope not. But if that day arrives, will English be the official language to communicate in? I'm not sure of that either, but it looks more likely than the others.
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Labels: Musings from France