I am woefully, shamefully monolinguistic.
In spoken languages, anyway. I have some good solid Latin under my belt, and I used to be fairly proficient with American Sign Language (that skill has faded with disuse, but I’d love to regain it). When it comes to spoken languages, however… I’m pretty well useless.
I don’t have the ear for it, is the thing. And that’s a weird thing to say, as someone who has such an audiographic memory in English, and who prides herself on a certain facility with language. I took a year of French in high school (before switching to ASL), and I’ve been self-tutoring on Italian for about a year now. I can read both languages at a basic level — enough to pick up a newspaper and get the gist, enough to follow instructions. I can speak simple sentences quite slowly. But I have never trained my ear to hear other languages spoken at a normal speed. This embarrasses me. It’s something I’d like to rectify.
I recently spent four days traveling in France and Italy. Across France, really, to get myself to three days in Rome. And I was hellbent not to use English unless I absolutely had to. Armed with Google Translate, a willing attitude, and a charming smile, I set out to experience la citta eterna in its own voice.
This is an experience every English-speaking American should have.
I mean, not Rome, specifically, but traveling somewhere that English isn’t the dominant language and trying to behave accordingly — trying, at least, to get along in a language besides the native tongue that so much of the world now kowtows to.
Let’s face it; I was doing this with a safety net. Almost everyone you’re going to encounter in the high-travel parts of France and Italy speaks at least some English. If you really get screwed, you can find someone to help you in your own language. There’s security in that, and I genuinely don’t know if I’d yet be brave enough to go farther off the beaten path, where that net didn’t exist.
What I found, though, is how much wonderful benefit there is in allowing yourself some confusion and embarrassment. I didn’t want to use the safety net if I didn’t had to. So I buckled some solid phrases under my belt, looked up extra vocab where needed, and proceeded to stammer and gesture my way through.
I’m sure it was hideous. It certainly didn’t seem to take anyone very long to figure out that I’m an English speaker — although, strangely, a fair few guessed French before I opened my mouth — but many, very kindly, stuck to Italian when they realized I wanted to give it a try. It seemed to make a lot of people happy that I was giving it a go. I managed to get through a few transactions at restaurants and shops without resorting to English at all, and I felt so proud of myself — so stupidly proud, for managing fifteen or twenty words outside of my native language — but proud nonetheless. (I also started to get irritated at overhearing my fellow Americans who weren’t even trying. I mean, how hard is “grazie”?)
It can be unnerving, at first. I was most unsettled about my linguistic disadvantage when I was actively in-transit — getting across Paris from one train station to another, finding my way to dinner in Torino, navigating the Roman bus system. The rest of the time, though, I realized I could breathe a little and let the musicality of the Italian language wash over me. When I let go of the desire to understand perfectly, I found that I actually could pick out a word here or there. Perhaps, with greater immersion, I might actually get that skill I’ve always thought was beyond me — I might actually be able to tune my ear.
I sure hope that, even if I came off as “that stupid monolinguist American”, I also at least came off as “that pleasant American” and not “that jackass American”. I tried to approach every interaction with a slightly apologetic smile and a willingness to learn. I tried to bring myself as far along as I could, rather than expecting those I encountered to jump to where I was. It’s a humbling moment, to realize how many people have this experience on a daily basis — and how many of them do it without a safety net.
It’s also interesting to think about what it is that you get wrong. I’m terrible with prepositions, as it turns out. What must that sound like to a native speaker? What does it sound like to us, in English, when someone gets things wrong? And I’m interested in a scientific way about what errors people coming from different first languages make — are some cultures more prone to screwing up verb tenses than others? How about cadence? What was it about the errors I made that made it so easy to identify me as una ragazza americana?
It’s the sort of thing, I think, that breeds empathy and compassion. Not just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but also thinking about how you get there. Too, thinking about how many concessions are still made for me, as an English-speaker, in so many non-English places.
So I urge you, my fellow native-English-speaking Americans, if you never have: Go abroad. Go somewhere that English is not the default language — even if it is still there as a safety net. Go somewhere where most of the conversations you hear will not be in English. Order a meal without using English. Ask for directions in another languagae, and try desperately to understand what you’re told. Get things wrong. Be corrected. Learn new words. Be laughed at a little. Blush a little. Apologize a little.
It’ll be good for you.
I think I might try Portugal next.