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The sadness of a world that speaks only Enlish


A famous joke asks three questions:

1. “What do you call someone who speaks two languages?”
2. “What do you call someone who speaks three languages?”
3. “What do you call someone who speaks one language?”

The answer to the first two questions are, of course, bilingual and trilingual respectively, but the answer to the third question, and the jokes punchline, can be either American or French, depending and who is telling it and, probably, who is in the audience.

The American punchline has always made the most sense to me. The US is famous for its linguistic insularity. Sharing a border with a mostly English-speaking Canada and a shorter border with Spanish speaking Mexico, Americans in general have very litter interaction with native speakers of languages other than English, as compared to residents of many other parts of the world. Of course, this varies geographically, with urban areas being host to much more linguistic diversity than the rest of the country and small pockets of native speakers of languages other than English spread across the country, such as French speakers in Louisiana and northern New England. The fact still remains that throughout life an American who stays within the borders of the United States will find little need to converse in a language other than English.

Even for Americans who do choose to venture across the Atlantic or Pacific or head south of the border, English as the increasingly cemented lingua franca of the world, will often be the easiest form of communication. Although English is one the 3rd most spoken native language, it is the second most spoken language when one considers those who speak it as a second or third language, following only behind Mandarin Chinese. This dominance is growing annually, as many, especially those in the developing world, see English as a prerequisite for prosperity.

This dominance has always left me feeling a little left out. Obviously, it is an enormous privilege to speak the world’s preeminent language natively and therefore not need to struggle to learn it out of necessity, but I have often felt this can take some of the excitement out of my travels. One of the thrills of being in a different place is being surrounded by and having the opportunity to test your abilities in a foreign tongue. For me, when I have travelled it has been a great disappoint for me to begin to speak in a different language, only to have a response returned to me in a version of my own language much better than I can ever hope to speak theirs.

On a recent trip to Paris, I got to see firsthand how dominant English is. France itself is a bit of an anomaly in Western Europe. France has enacted a number of laws to encourage and in some case mandate the use of French in public. So if anything, I expected Paris to be a bit of a dam against the rising tide of English domination. For the most part, this was not the case.

When I arrived at my hotel in Paris, a few blocks from both the Gare du Lyon and Bastille, I made a point of trying to use French exclusively in my conversation with the hotel’s front desk staff person. She appeared to be in her early twenties so I imagined she was in possession of English abilities far exceeding my heavily accented, halting French. Surprising, however, she obliged, or more likely humored me as I filled my reservation by communicating in French. She only switched to English once to say 84, when I couldn’t understand the price she said to me.

Alas, her willingness to tolerate my French was the exception at this particular hotel and at most places I visited in Paris. At the first restaurant I ate the waitress serving my table listened to my inquiries in French, but responded in English. This manner was understandable. The job of a Parisian waitress is not an easy one and I am sure that they have little time to deal with the Francophone pretentions of an American tourist.

I never felt any negative attitude when speaking in English, an experience that certainly runs counter to many of the stereotypes of the French as linguistic snobs. Indeed, I often felt that many establishments went out of their way to accommodate my English speaking background, even when I tried to hint at my desire to communicate in French. This tendency was taken to the extreme at one café where a waiter made a point of brining over an English language menu written on a chalkboard and mounting it on a chair when he couldn’t find the normal sized English menu—despite my protests that a French menu would be fine.

Many of these experiences are surely peculiar to Paris being an international city where English often is the most practical means of communication even when dealing with tourists from non-English speaking countries. In the rest of the country mono-lingual French speakers are certainly more common. Earlier in the same trip in London, I spent a few hours conversing with four French tourists from the more rural Alsace region of the country. Although they had studied English in school, they had little opportunity to practice it, living in a region less frequented by English-speaking tourists. These experiences with English more or less paralleled my own with French and we had a great evening communicating in our own broken forms of each other’s native tongues. Indeed, we started to speak in French so much that my travel companion who is fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English, but not French, had to ask me to speak more English. I think I got to use more French that night in London than almost my whole time in Paris.

I did crave more opportunities to speak that wonderful language during my far too short three day sojourn in Paris. Near the end of the trip I thought I had found my opportunity, as I was preparing to leave at the Gare du Lyon terminal, I was approached by a young woman speaking French asking for direction to a nearby street. Flattered and excited to be addressed in French, I began my response only to have her quickly switch her second question to English when she heard my response and realized we both were Americans. She had the same excitement in her eyes that I’m sure I showed getting to use French and the same disappointment when realizing that English would probably be more useful. At least I wasn’t the only one.

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