Linguistic Divergence

I was chatting with my Dad about going to France earlier, and a few more things occurred to me about the trip worth mentioning.

One was how….mmm…linguistically courteous? so many things were. Leaving aside the labeling in English under most menus and all major signs, at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris, you got in a line for the ticket-takers, and each window had a little monitor over it, which said “Departing Immediately” in French. On a little band on each screen were flags–Italian, Spanish, British. They indicated what languages the ticket-taker spoke, so we would go to the one with the British flag and be assured of speaking to someone who had at least a basic fluency in English and could give us directions to the platform. (My mother had enough basic fluency in French to get tickets anyway, and even I, once I managed to figure out that allez was “one way” and voile was “platform,” could make myself understood, but it was MUCH faster to go to someone where mime was not a required step.)

Now, this is of course of no surprise to anyone living in Europe, because there’s a great many languages piled on top of each other in a close space and it only makes sense, and of course I have known it in the abstract for many years, and long believed that a shamefully high percentage of My Fellow Americans are, to put it mildly, raging irrational dicks on the primary language front* when there are plenty of proofs out there that yes, we can all just get along if we’re willing to Not Be Dicks and extend a little goodwill and play some charades and put a couple of subtitle options on the DVDs.

But it does certainly bring it home when you are immersed in a completely foreign language and you know all of ten words and nevertheless practically everyone you meet is willing to knuckle down and figure out what you are saying (and/or speaks at least fifty or a hundred words of your language anyway.) (And on at least one occasion, seeing that we were headed for the wrong platform, a station guard who had spoken no English at all and engaged in some very spirited mime with us sprinted after us and made sure we got on the correct platform. It was extremely kind, and I was very grateful.)

Try this in the US and I’ll give you even odds on being eaten by wolves.

This is not news, of course.

What I didn’t realize is how downright scary it can be not to speak the language. In the abstract, I suppose I had some notion, but I think that’s one you really and truly have to actually experience, or possibly I was just more unsettled by it than many people would be. (My father was not, he said, ever particularly bothered by not speaking the language, and has lived and worked in China and Egypt and Japan and simply learned all the tricks of How To Get Where You Are Going Anyway, like always keeping business cards for your hotel in your wallet to hand to cab drivers.)

This may simply be a personality thing. Words are my stock in trade and my primary weapon to attack the world with, and I did feel rather like somebody took my sword away and gave me a Nerf bat and said “Right! Go get ’em, tiger!” (And then of course there’s all the problems of being female and traveling in a big city where you don’t have anyone to call if you get in trouble and the added neurosis that if you lose this one little blue square of paper, YOU WILL NEVER GO HOME AGAIN.**)

Let me hasten to add that this is not me saying that I think everybody everywhere should speak my language, because dude, I like to think I am not one of the world’s more complete douchebags. This is more me saying that I felt…I don’t know, vulnerable? Unsettled? Like I stuck out a mile?

These are not necessarily bad things to feel. It is probably good to feel them sometimes. The universe owes you very few things, and the right to go to other countries and not feel awkward and out of place is nowhere on the list. And I think that given a couple more weeks or a few more trips, I would probably get over it and get used to the mime and whatnot and possibly even enjoy it. I was certainly a bit more comfortable by the end of the trip, when it was obvious that despite knowing all of ten words and having a truly cringeworthy accent, I could still get by.

(This does not mean, I hasten to add, that I didn’t enjoy myself! Far from it! It’s just a weird underlying feeling. Somebody undoubtedly has a polysyllabic word for “the feeling of dislocation experienced by the first-time traveler which wears off eventually and causes one to re-examine one’s own nation’s linguistic biases.”***)

The other funny thing was that everywhere we went, even if we didn’t say a single word, they KNEW we were Americans. I could understand that my pronunciation of “Bonjour!” probably leaves a lot to be desired (I practiced! Really!) but pretty soon my mother was asking “How do they KNOW? We don’t say anything and they still know immediately!”

My theory was that Birkenstocks with socks have not caught on in Europe, but my father’s far more plausible one is that if you live somewhere long enough, you can spot an American a mile off, although you don’t know how you know. “Something about how Americans hold themselves,” he said, “and dress, and how we look at things.” (He went on to say that there comes a point, when you’ve lived in said country long enough, where you no longer give off this vibe. He was in Egypt long enough that people would come up and begin speaking to him in Arabic.) So I guess there’s a case to be made for body language there, or maybe cut of clothes or…something.

I don’t know. My understanding of how the rest of the world views Americans is mostly informed by a deep suspicion that it expects us (at best) to be well-meaning and rather overbearing and (at worst) to be wrapped in American flags, wearing cowboy hats and streaking through the crowd screaming “LEEEEEROOOOOOY JENKINS!”  I tried very hard not to look this was something I might do, and everyone extended me the courtesy of not acting as if this were a possibility.

And the orange juice was incredible.




*I’m really not interested in having a debate about primary languages/immigration/whatever in the comments, and will delete such starting, because seriously, not enough spoons, guys. Hit me up again sometime when it’s not election season and the jingoistic fervor in the air has died down a bit.

**Until the consulate gets you a replacement.

***Incidentally, every German tourist we encountered spoke English better than I do.

11 thoughts on “Linguistic Divergence

  1. kat says:

    I hit the point of “not obviously American” very quickly — by which I mean the Americans thought I was a native, and the natives thought I was Canadian (or, occasionally, Dutch.) I suspect this has to do with the cultural weirdness of growing up in an in-between family in the South. Which is to say, you learn quick not to talk with a Southern accent in front of your parents’ friends or their kids, because they will mock you for being dumb and ignorant and a hick and read your parents lectures about how they should stop letting their kids be exposed to Those Kind Of People (ie, the locals).

    If, on the other hand, you talked without an accent to the locals, they assumed you were one of them stuck-up Yankees.

    So you develop a chameleon accent. I never really thought about this until I went abroad and realized that I was, within days, picking up the language patterns of people around me to a startling degree.

    There’s some unfortunate side effects to this — for a month or two after I came back from Britain “fuck” was every third word out of my mouth — but it’s handy when you don’t wanna stick out.

  2. Tara says:

    It’s true you can spot American’s a mile off. My theory is that it has nothing to do with dress/camera/accessories. It has to do with an innate confidence and culture. Americans (and I realise this is a broad horrible generalist statement, but I can only speak from my own experience of Americans, to wit, tourists) tend to act/behave/feel that they world owes them a favour and look-dammit-we’re-spending-good-‘ole-Amercan-dollars-here-in-your-little-3rd-world-country-and-oh-lawd-Henry-they-DO-have-internet!

    Ahem. That said, I can also spot other Zimbabweans (where I grew up) and South African’s (where I live now) a mile away. So there you go. Maybe my perception of American tourists is coloured by a few negative interactions? For all I know, South Africans are equally obnoxious! I know I walked around with my camera permanently attached to my face, a South African flag (a tiny one!) and a backpack while in Copenhagen.

  3. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    I’s like to make two points;

    1) It isn’t just Americans. Talk to a European (or read Peter Mayle) and you will discover that he believes (and will make you believe) that he can spot an Englishman, a German, A Parisian, and so on.

    2) Yes, Americans seldom understand anything but English. On the other hand they understand English in an amazing array of dialects from Maine to California, with special points for Brooklyn.

  4. Escher says:

    Actually, as a Texan myself, cowboy hats are rather useful when traveling internationally. Much of the world appears to believe that north america is made up of two distinct entities, “The United States”, and “Texas”. If you say you’re American you get the usual bland response. If you say you’re from Texas everyone’s face lights up and they say, “Ohhh! Texas! Yes!” (I’ve heard this reaction is particularly strongly in Japan, but my family got it even in the UK.) Wearing the hat just lets everyone know where you’re from without sayin’ it.

  5. BrassyDel says:

    I have a friend who is a country boy, though not from Texas, and when he worked in Japan for several months his cowboy hat was reportedly a HUGE hit.

    I worked at a kids’ boutique for awhile in college and we have a large spanish-speaking population here. I was amazed and disgusted by the out-right racist attitudes I saw from a lot of fellow mall workers, and maybe that’s why I had such a good experience fumbling the little Spanish I knew to talk to my spanish-only customers. A lot of times the kids would translate for parents, and parents usually looked relieved and pleased when I tried to talk with them in spanish (even if all I could manage was explaining pricing and sales).

  6. sabrinix says:

    I’m rather amused by the instantly being identified as American bit. Mostly because both times that I went to France, I got asked for directions. I guess I just seem very European?

  7. Kathy says:

    So we went to Paris. Day one, I got pegged as an American and husband and I kept getting hit up by gypsies. So I parked at a cafe and watched people for a couple of hours (incidentally- my semi surly waitress took her break next to me and smoked half a pack- was hilarious) and I figured it out. Americans make eye contact and automatically smile. That really makes Parisians irate. So you make eye contact, do a tiny slight nod to acknowledge but do NOT smile. I also wore all black and tied my scarf in the latest Parisian fashion. By the end of the second day, I passed as Parisian, people would immediately speak to me in French. Hubby- well, he kept getting hit up by gypsies. Pretty sure his basebal cap, Levis and New Balance shoes gave him away. On a happy note, we only met one truly obnoxious person there (cab driver) and we have several French people apologize for his behavior. I went expecting people to be mean and came home just in love with how kind they were. They seem gruff and standoffish at first glance, but if you can get them to talk to you, they were wonderful and full of stories. I loved them.

    I did however learn I did NOT like the stinky cheese, raw hamburger patties and eggs on my burger. Non! Nutella crepes made by an unsanitary man smoking on the corner, yeah, they were awesome!

  8. Andrew Ragland says:

    While in Singapore, I got mistaken for being German. Dunno about why that happened. Tall white guy trying to dress like a local, sweating profusely in the daily heat but making a go of it anyway? Maybe it was the bag I was carrying – most American men don’t carry shoulderbags. Or the interest I had in the non-touristy bits, like shopping in the markets where the natives bought their stuff instead of the Western-style stores and the tourist traps. And visiting every religious building I could find, regardless of the faith.

    As far as sign language, that happens to a lot of people. A fruit vendor in the Chinatown area apparently spoke Cantonese and not much else, and did most of her business with non-Chinese customers in sign language, which included the Malays and the Filipinos and me. With street (well, sidewalk) vendors in Singapore, you just point at what you want, they hold up fingers to indicate price, and you offer them coin to indicate you agree and would like to make a purchase. It did help me that English is one of the four official languages of Singapore. Yeah, four official languages. And they’re doing fine with it.

  9. Hawk says:

    I agree about “spotting the American” (or should it be spotting the foreigner?). My grandmother was born in Prussia (well, now it’s Poland, but then I guess it was still Prussia, because she never called it Poland!) and she spent the Occupation in Berlin (which is where she nabbed my grandfather). My mother was born in Germany but of course moved around a lot and ended up here in the States, the joys of military childhood. But both Oma and Mom say that it’s just something about Americans. They tended to see a lot of soldiers, so they talked a lot about arrogance and swaggering. I can’t help but grin wryly every time I remember Oma’s joke about a “stupid American” with his boots on the table, claiming the Limburger isn’t stinky enough.

    Weird stuff your family tells you.

    I’ve never traveled out of the States (going into a border town like Ciudad Acuna doesn’t count, in my opinion; we never ventured far nor did much other touristy bits)…I like to think that if I ever do get to go to Europe, I’d eventually get the hang of it.

    I think it’s awesome that people were nice to you. I’ve heard way more “bad” stories than good ones. Most of the people who’ve talked to me seem to be highly in favor of trips involving big groups. Herding instinct, maybe? 😛

  10. Angela says:

    “How do they KNOW?”

    When we lived in Germany (6-8 years ago), we were told it’s because Americans smile all the time, and for no reason. Funnily enough, I lived in Israel for the last two years, and people thought I was local from day one.

  11. Korbl says:

    From what people have said, apparently I should move over seas (less smiling, wearing black, wearing something other than sneakers)

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