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Saturday, February 08, 2003

The Ugly American

Although I’ll only be spending a few days in Amsterdam I have started to learn a bit of Dutch before I go to Europe next month. I’ve been to Amsterdam before and I felt like such a retard for not knowing one bit of the language. Sure, everyone and her brother speaks English in the Netherlands, they pretty much have to as it is a small country with lots of out-of-towners. I just want to speak enough to get the point across that I do realize that English is not native to them and that they have a language of their own and could I please get a large cone of French fries with lots of mayonnaise, please.

I’ll be spending the bulk of this visit in France whose language I speak and understand fairly fluently. On my last trip there I taught my two brothers a smattering of French that served them very well. A bonjour here and there will really make your stay a lot more pleasant. I don’t think that the French are quite so keen on English as the Dutch so I would say the more French you know the better off you are.

I don’t speak English to French people and I have found that even those with near native fluency in English will work with me through whatever rough spots I might have with their language. I guess that you could say that I am a student of languages and I’ve been in school most of my life. Learning a foreign language as an adult is an incredibly complex task. It takes lots of hard work and perseverance and lots of long plane rides to cool places.

I have had arguments concerning language with all sorts of people. To the Europeans who think we Americans are stupid because we only speak English and to the Americans who think that immigrants should speak English I say the same thing: Language isn’t an ideology, it is simply a means of communicating. No one is able to pick their native language and the hegemony of English worldwide doesn’t reflect on our intelligence one way or another.

I am really bugged by Europeans who speak their tongue (Dutch, for instance) and then feel proud because they also speak English. Big deal, if they only spoke Dutch they wouldn’t be able to communicate with the rest of the world. It isn’t my fault that English is now the universal language. To the Americans who complain that French people are rude (This has never been my experience) I would ask them how friendly Americans are to visitors who don’t speak one word of English. Probably not too friendly would be my guess.

To all of the anti-immigrant people who feel that foreign workers in the U.S. should all learn English I would ask them how they propose that these people go about learning our language. To these people I would suggest that they shut the fuck up and go volunteer to teach English to their dish washers and gardeners.

My new French tutor also teaches piano. It seems appropriate that my two hobbies can now be tutored by the same person. I find that the skills of musicianship and mastering a foreign language have a lot of similarities and both require a lot of work. I derive the same sort of pleasure from both pursuits. They are both about tearing down walls that hinder understanding.

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