Coffee with Mimi: Foreign language is sometimes English

BY MIMI BECKER

Community columnist

I am embarrassed to admit it, but I speak just one language. I wish it were otherwise, but it is so. Furthermore, I have so many deficiencies of knowledge in so many areas, the acquisition of a second language gets crowded out and further down the list as every day passes.    

Way back when, I took two years of high school French. I did well, though the 93% I earned in the first year was, if my memory serves me, the ONLY “B” I had on my report card that year.  My second year performance was better for the GPA. Nevertheless, there is no way one could consider my knowledge of French to be remotely adequate for, say, a conversation with a person actually speaking French. This truth was painfully evident when I actually went to France shortly after my academic experience with the language.

If you can do the math, I visited the “Continent” about 25 years after the end of WWII. To those less than 25 years old today, that would seem to be a coon’s age. But think about it.

The majority of people I encountered had LIVED through the war. Just this week, a British war veteran died at the age of 100. He was born in 1920. At the time I visited Europe the first time he was considerably younger than I am now.

On this first trip, I was living with family in England for several weeks during the summer.  While purists may argue the English speak English and Americans speak American, at least there was a usable bank of words for generally efficient existence.  But then, we took a field trip across the Channel. I thought I would be able to take my newly acquired language skills out for a spin in at least France. Who was I kidding?

I comprehended pretty much nothing spoken. I did a bit better with the printed word, but if it hadn’t been for my aunt and uncle who had lived in and around Europe for several years, I would have wandered aimlessly. That was the era of guidebooks and conversation dictionaries. The kind in paper form. And, people were nice enough to wave and point in the right direction.

In reality, most people in Europe spoke their own native language. They were polite enough to be accommodating and help out and we all got along.

That was then, this is now.

I still do not have any conversational skills in any foreign language. Yet, I have traveled to no less than 10 foreign countries and navigated my way to restaurants, historic sites, and hotels, using multiple modes of public transportation. I have shopped in countries in which the national currency is not the dollar, at least not the American one.

There are cell phone apps available for people to translate from English to any language and vice versa. The user can type in the phrases or words desired or they can be spoken into the app. It is possible to point and click a cell phone which will immediately translate words on a sign. I have never used any of those tools. Never had to.

In a mere 50 years, since my first sojourn across the pond, the rest of the world decided to figure out how to communicate with each other. And, they went and did it.

Yes, it does appear that the common thread was to identify a language that was in use by a significant number of persons the world over. Out of almost 200 countries in the world, approximately half designate English as the primary or secondary official language. But, the rest of the world didn’t just fall all over their classrooms to learn English. According to one source, more than half of all Europeans speak at least one foreign language.

For those thinking I’m trying to make a funny, “foreign” doesn’t refer to a language foreign to Americans. “Foreign” means not their native tongue. A decent percentage of Europeans speak three or more foreign languages. At one point there were more residents of China taking English classes than there were Americans (in America). Not sure if this is still the case, but you get my point.

And, we sit over here and travel over there expecting everyone to figure us out here and there.  Well, a good number of them have. However, I’m not so sure it makes us the wiser.

An American tourist/business person has to hope that someone will be around whenever needed to guide or solve a problem. A good amount of the world’s tourists/business people can do without an American, at least in the language department.

My first real experience in a foreign country where this language phenomenon was acutely apparent was in Sweden.

Nearly 40 years ago, I spent spring break in Scandinavia. I was not on a tour with a guide, I was on my own. Knowledge of the Swedish language is not in my repertoire, remember. No matter. Every school kid/shop keeper/waitress I encountered could easily converse in English. That foreign language sure came in handy in attracting my business.