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Friday, September 14, 2007

Culture and Language

Spanish people get picked on in Europe because they don’t speak English. With only 18% of Spaniards able to speak, read, and write English at a high level, they lag behind most other European Union countries in this regard. They pick on themselves incessantly for their monoglot ways. There are countless advertisements for English language courses and every conceivable gimmick is held out to entice, cajole, and bully Spaniards into learning this odd, Germanic tongue. Being less than perfectly fluent in Spanish, or any other foreign language, I understand how Spaniards feel about their lack on acumen in English. People criticize Americans all the time for our unwillingness to learn other languages and I think that we have a lot in common
with the Spanish in this area.

Like Americans concerning English, I think that most Spanish people think that the Spanish speaking world is pretty big. Just for a review, here is a list of the countries where Spanish is spoken:

• Argentina
• Bolivia
• Chile
• Colombia
• Costa Rica
• Cuba
• Dominican Republic
• El Salvador
• Equatorial Guinea
• Guatemala
• Honduras
• Mexico
• Nicaragua
• Panama
• Paraguay
• Peru
• Puerto Rico
• Spain
• Uruguay
• Venezuela

Along with these countries I would add that the United States has more Spanish speakers than every country on this list except four. There are hundreds of millions of people who speak Spanish spread pretty heavily over three continents. Spanish is also one of the favorite choices for those of us who want to learn another language. It’s a big world out there if you can speak Spanish.

The Dutch are well-know for being proficient in languages. It seems that just about everyone in the Netherlands speaks English with almost native fluency. I’m sure that many residents of Holland speak more than one foreign language; it seems almost a part of the national character. Dutch is also spoken in Belgium and has about 20 million speakers worldwide. The Dutch world is positively dwarfed by Spanish. Learning another language in the Netherlands isn’t a hobby, it’s practically a requirement. If you’re Dutch and you don’t speak another language, your world is rather small and homogenous.

I have talked to many Spanish people about English and most of them who don’t speak it just don’t want to learn. Some of them think that they probably should have a better understanding of English, mostly for professional reasons, but they just don’t feel compelled to go out and learn it. I think the same is true of many Americans. Why should someone who lives in the United States bother to learn a foreign language? And if they do learn another language, which should they choose? Dutch? German? Chinese? It takes an incredible amount of work to reach a level of proficiency in any foreign language; work that many people feel is better used to further their professional careers, and many jobs have no use for another language.

Besides career advancement, another reason to learn another language is enjoying the fruits of a different culture. In this respect, I think many Spanish and English speaking natives feel that their own culture has enough to offer. Spain has a vibrant popular culture of music and movies; the same is true of most Latin American countries. If your native tongue is Rumanian, or Greek, or Albanian, I think that your choices in pop culture are somewhat limited, at least compared to English and Spanish speakers.

Believe it or not, lots of Spanish kids don’t really like English/American rock and roll, although many do, of course. Lots of Spanish kids don’t look for music outside of what is produced in Spain. Flamenco, flamenco fusion, and Spanish pop seems to be all that a lot of people here need when it comes to music; they don’t even bother with Spanish music from other countries like salsa and meringue from Latin America.
In my opinion, the Spanish have the most distinct and idiosyncratic lifestyle of any Europeans, perhaps of anyone in the world. It seems to me that Spanish people don’t really feel the need to search for identity outside of their very defining culture. I think that this has a lot to do with their unwillingness to learn English. Why should they learn English? So they can act more like Americans? It just doesn’t seem to me that this is something they are after.

I guess that it’s easy for me to defend the Spanish for not learning English because I’ve had to defend Americans for not learning whatever foreign language our detractors would have us learn. Native speakers of Spanish and English have a very rich and extensive culture to occupy their energies. Learning another language for us is a luxury, for the most part, not a requirement. Those of you who find that learning to speak another language is essential shouldn’t be so hasty in judging Americans or Spanish people who speak only their native tongue.

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