I don’t speak German (thus, the spelling is an educated guess)
Spring break began with quite a number of shocks, some pleasant, some challenging. Challenging: train strike was still on. Pleasant: I figured out how to work around it and finished a full day of travel only two hours late. Challenging: I can’t understand anything beyond guten tag, bitte, danke schoen, and random words that look like English. Pleasant: my German friend is still awesome. Well, not actually a surprise — I knew this already, and it hasn’t changed — but his patience with foreigners still amazes me. Also pleasant: everyone else in the apartment, plus the majority of other friends I met, all knew enough English that they were round about my level in French. Wow. Two trains of thought stem from this.
First, I haven’t been to a “real” foreign country, meaning one where I don’t speak one of the official languages, in three years, since a spring break trip to Italy. I had almost forgotten what a feeling of confusion, difference, ignorance, and loss anyone will feel upon arrival to a place where you do not understand the language. You can’t ask for directions, you can barely order meals (and that’s only if you recognize anything on the menu), you don’t know how much anything costs, public services are incomprehensible and unrecognizable, and you have to rely on facial expressions and body language to figure out what anyone is saying. The utter dread that quickly follows can creep in or flood you, but it will come.
Scared yet? It’s actually a good thing. You figure out how to communicate anyway, and you become exponentially more grateful for people who comprehend the words that come out of your mouth than you ever thought possible. Enough taking understanding for granted. In short, your mind opens to different ways of doing things, and you learn that you can survive something you hadn’t really thought of before. (Granted, all this is exaggerated compared to what I experienced this time around — I’ve been to Germany before, and German is much closer to English than, say, Swahili).
Second train of thought: as internationally ignorant as Americans are thought of by many non-Americans, there is a slight excuse in a catch-22. Take language and politics as an example. Every student at the university that I met was proficient, if not fluent, in English. They tend to know quite a bit about current events and government in the US, if only the name of our president and that health care and immigration are huge debates right now. Conversely, not many Americans are fluent in German, and there wouldn’t be many who could name the political leader of Germany right now (it’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for the interested). But everyone looks to English as the language to know, to America as the country to know about. Are you a little French student? Learn English. Are you a German university student? Study about America. Are you a Korean businessman? Learn English. Et cetera. If you’re American, there are certain areas or languages that should interest you more than others (the EU and China and the Middle East, for example, with their respective languages), but you don’t have one superpower to look to. The need to learn another language to be understood by more of the world is not nearly as pressing. So while I’m not defending the inability of some Americans to see past the end of their own nose, I do claim a reasonable excuse to not know German. Or Chinese, or Arabic, or Italian, or Spanish.
Here begins a series of backlogged entries, all stuck in my mind until now, when I returned to having free rein over my own computer. I’ll try to catch up quickly — especially since I’ll be leaving France for good (for now) in four short weeks.