February 2019

Recently, we had dinner with a prospective resident in my retirement community. He was a United States citizen originally from Germany. He made a remark that people in the United States don’t want to learn the language of people who immigrate here. I told him of a news article I’d read that contained the statement, ‘more than 900 official languages are spoken in North Carolina every day’. (I cannot vouch for the authenticity of that statement.) I asked him which I should learn first. My husband promptly changed the subject. (For the record, the gentleman didn’t move here.)

You see, language is one of my soapboxes. I believe all immigrants should learn the language of their adopted country. Do I expand that to learning some language of our travel destinations? Some of our travel companions do. I don’t with the reason my mispronunciation might be more confusing than my English.

English is the language of the world. I learned that several years ago in conversation with a World Health Organization employee who regularly traveled over large parts of the world. She stated WHO officials had declared all meetings would be in English, and further stated other scientific organizations had done the same. A friend in the field of organic chemistry is in demand around the world for various periods of time. He, too, said all meetings are held in English. Another friend travels to many countries on evangelism trips. They, too, speak only English in their meetings.

I’m not aware of any country that requires children to learn any second language other than English. In our travels, we’ve learned people like to practice their English with us. Fiji comes to mind. When we walked around our resort area, people, mostly teenagers, followed us around politely asking us to talk to them in English.

A local guide in San Juan, Puerto Rico, comes to mind as one who did not. We had a very difficult time understanding him. He persisted in talking about ‘hoedulls’. I thought he might be saying ‘hovels’ but we were not in a slum area. Finally, he said ‘Howard Johnson’ and I realized he was talking about hotels. He’d learned English by reading, not by hearing.

Our guide in Lucerne was the opposite. She eagerly told us she’d learned English by listening to the BBC out of London, yet she recognized our accent was different and consistently asked if we could understand her.

Even native-speaking people in one country speaking the same language in another can have difficulties. Our guide in Quebec told us of using her native French tongue in Paris. She couldn’t understand those people and they couldn’t understand her.

When I lived in Chapel Hill (now there’s a melting pot of languages!), I had a native Spanish-speaking client from Chile working on her doctorate. One of her professors, a native of Spain, consistently corrected her pronunciation with the statement the only correct Spanish is the pure Castilian Spanish of Spain’s upper classes.

One of our most pleasant encounters concerning English was in Heidelberg, which some people call The City of Swans. For lunch, we chose a restaurant known for its soups. The waitress spoke English well and was eager to practice it. She described one soup as “the big white ‘veggie-table’ [her pronunciation] that pulls apart.” She repeated pronunciation and the spelling of cauliflower several times and then described another soup. She couldn’t remember the word for “the other white bird, not chicken.” We guessed all we could think of, then Jim said swan. She glared at him and said, “We don’t eat swan!” Jim finally came up with a “bird” we rarely eat: goose. However, we should have thought of it sooner because we have many that congregate at our retirement community lake in spring and fall, with a few living here year-round.

In Germany, we had a local guide who obviously had learned English by reading. She referred to the South-ern part of the United States. Okay. North-ern, West-ern, East-ern, so why not South-ern?

I greatly admire people who attempt to learn English as a second language. I doubt if there is a more difficult language on Planet Earth.