Intimidated by Europeans?

Old Sep 7th, 2003, 10:19 PM
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Intimidated by Europeans?

On our last trip to Europe in April, we were in Amsterdam and I just marveled at the fact that almost everyone spoke English so well even using American idioms properly. A humbling experience for me with my barely coherent high school Spanish. I know, I know...it's a small country so to be able to communicate , knowledge of English is mandatory, but they also knew other languages as well. Which made me think, what's wrong with us expecting everyone to know our language...that whole "Ugly American" thing. Does anyone else feel intimidated when in Europe...not just by language, but anything else?
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Old Sep 7th, 2003, 10:34 PM
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Only by the sales clerks in Paris. Just kidding. But I think you are leaving an important fact out of the equation.

For all sorts of historical and economic reasons (please let's not get into it on this thread), English IS the lingua franca of the world. No matter where you go, you've got a pretty good chance of finding someone who speaks it.

If you don't speak French or German or Italian (because you happen to be Japanese or Nigerian or Brazilian) you are just as likely as an American to ask that ubiquitous question, "Do you speak English?" I think Americans are a bit TOO sensitive about it. Plenty of other nationalities use English to communicate in foreign countries as well.

On the other hand, I can't understand anyone not bothering to learn a few key words in the language of any place they are interested enough in to visit. "Please," "thank you," "good day," and "where's the toilet" are sure on the top of my list!
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Old Sep 7th, 2003, 11:27 PM
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I think the Brits would see it as expecting everyone to speak OUR language. Remember, we invented it.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 12:19 AM
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EnglishOne, Maybe Marilyn should have been more explicit: AMERICAN English is the lingua franca. And I think American English speech and spelling is taking a stronger hold in the UK too. Being a 'power user' of Microsoft software all day every day, the word 'favourites' now looks strange to me (another Brit). Favorites looks correct.

Anyway, I think Marilyn is right. It's rude to assume others speak English. The least one should do is learn how to say 'do you speak English?' in their language, and preferably 'hi', 'bye', 'thanks' etc.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 01:09 AM
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Well, 'favorites' doesn't look right to me, and Microsoft won't rule for ever. Anyway, they're 'bookmarks' to me. But then, I still talk about 'the wireless'.

We British should beat ourselves up a bit more, and lucky03 maybe a bit less, about not speaking a foreign language. It's a fact of circumstances that you don't need to in the US, but we do in Europe. Americans no doubt have various skills of use in America that we don't, because we organise life differently in Europe.

On the other hand, English of one sort or another is not the only lingua franca in the world. In many aspects of intra-European contact it is by default becoming so, but with (obviously) a lot of resistance. I rather liked the suggestion that the EU should only use French, German and English but that no-one should their native language!

Eventually - maybe fairly soon - we will probably need to have some stock of phrases in Mandarin....
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 01:17 AM
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In parts of the US, like it or not, some folks have realized the possible need to be at least a bit conversant in Spanish.
Perhaps the thing that's "wrong" with expecting everyone to "know our language" is the fact that some people, as a result, DO feel "intimidated" when they travel elsewhere when they suddenly realize that this "expectation" may not be the best course and attitude.
 
Old Sep 8th, 2003, 01:45 AM
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Lucky 03, I'll let you in on the reason that so many Dutch speak English well. Partly it is because most Europeans, as you know, learn English in school from an early age, but also it is because, especially in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, they get a lot of American tv programs which are not dubbed but shown just with subtitles.

If the average American watched a lot of TV in a language other than English over a long time period, then I am sure that it would have some effect on his/ her ability to be reasonably proficient in that language.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 02:13 AM
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Lucky03, you are overlooking the simple geographic necessity that makes Europeans to speak other languages. In the U.S., you can drive 3000 miles and along all those miles, English is the official language. Drive 3000 miles across Europe and the official languages are German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, French, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, etc. etc. English is the default second language they know is practical for business. Their third language often comes from having relatives through marriage in another country.
Multilingualism is no indicator of higher virtue--in Belgium, there are three official languages and the fact that most people speak at least two languages doesn't make the country run any more efficiently (the opposite seems to be more likely). People aren't innately nicer, smarter, friendlier simply because they speak more than one language. They do so because it's NECESSARY. If it wasn't necessary--or at least sensible--they probably wouldn't.
It's the same with diet, FYI. The reed-thin Italians I know all complain that when they go on business trips to the U.S. they come home with extra kilos. They said it's easy to talk about American lack of dietary willpower when they're on the other side of the Atlantic, but they lose their own discipline when faced with tempting hotel breakfast buffets of French toast and pancakes with maple syrup...or cheesecakes and Cinnabons in the afternoon.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 03:18 AM
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Nice reply, BTilke. I still think two languages should be mandatory in U.S. gradeschools. This may be the easiest way to strengthen English in this country.

As for this thread, NOBODY intimidates me! I do all the intimidating. (Although, back in the day, I was scared shi*less. Then I learned Italian and French.)
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 03:32 AM
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I'm always rather amused by this English/American thing. Why do you think that people in many parts of Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and in North America speak English? It's because for a couple of centuries give or take, they were British colonies.
There are places, e.g. China where they prefer to learn what they call "standard English".
 
Old Sep 8th, 2003, 03:35 AM
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I agree that American students should learn a second language (or third) but students shouldn't wait until high school--it's so much easier to learn foreign languages when you start at a young age.
But on the other hand, why stop at foreign languages. Students should be studying music, art, foreign cultures, etc. And Spanish shouldn't be the *only* second language offered.
In my public Pennsylvania high school, I had the choice between French, German, Spanish or Latin. I studied French and Spanish (wish I had taken German, too). I also had music theory five days a week, art three days a week, chorus three days a week, etc. School budgets are cut to the bone these days--would rather our schoolkids got that $87 billion--but that's another, non-travel thread.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 04:31 AM
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Hi lucky,

I have never felt intimidated when people in other countries are kind enough to speak to me in English. Grateful is more like it.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 04:39 AM
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Most American tourists are not irrogant or intimidated when they travel to Europe. You can be respectful and appreciate other cultures and customs without downplaying your own.


You find good and bad everywhere you travel. Focus on the good things.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 06:16 AM
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Although it was mentioned above, TV plays a major role in the "amount" or "quality" of English that Europeans speak. In Scandinavia and in many smaller European countries, the TV is filled with American (and British) programs in English with local subtitles. That is a rarity in Germany, France, or Italy. As a result it always seems that those natives of the smaller countries are easier to understand -- sometimes seeming to have no "local accent" to their English. Not so with Germans and French who may have learned some English is school, but aren't hearing it daily on the TV.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 06:27 AM
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I agree with Patrick's point. One thing that really niggles me about French television is the lack of subtitles. Even on news items or documentaries, rather than subtitling dialogue by speakers of foreign languages, they dub it in a really annoying fashion, so that you can just about - but not quite - hear the original language underneath the French. I'd much prefer them to use subtitles so that viewers can properly hear what's being said in the original language and read the dialogue via subtitles.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 07:58 AM
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I always feel a little humbled by the multilingual abilities of some Europeans, particularly those from the smaller countries or that live in regions where at least three linguistic boundaries converge. It is a mistake, however, to assume that all, or even most, Europeans are multilingual. I have certainly encountered plenty of monolingual Europeans.

Keep in mind that almost no one learns a foreign language out of respect for foreigners. In most cases, the languages we speak are solely dictated by geography and economics. The Dutch learn English, German and French because they are surrounded by economically powerful nations in which these languages are spoken. The same is true for Belgium, Luxembourg, and even Switzerland. In contrast, the larger the country, the higher percentage of monolingual and bilingual speakers. Europe is no exception to this rule. The exceptions, on an individual basis, tend to be residents of larger European nations that must deal with a variety of foreign businesses or customers.

To put the US in this geographic context, consider that Germany, the largest nation in western Europe, is slightly smaller than Montana, the fourth largest US state. From this perspective, it is no wonder that many Americans are monolingual. It's almost an inevitable consequence of geography.

If a different language was spoken in every US state, the vast majority of Americans would be multilingual. In addition to my native language of Coloradan, I would also speak Wyomish, New Mexican, Utahn and Kansan, with maybe a little Nebraskan.

Of course, there are some exceptions to the geography and economics rule. Acquisition of a foreign language was a mandatory part of my Ph.D. program (French in my case). Some will pick up a bit of English because they love the Beatles or Hollywood movies. Travelers that find themselves repeatedly visiting France or Italy may decide to learn French or Italian.

One final thought, don't assume that the overwhelming majority of Americans are monolingual. Spanish is a very common second language among non-Hispanics residing in the states that share a border with Mexico. Even in my state of Colorado, which does not share a border with Mexico, Spanish is a very popular language in the high schools and universities. A recent news report stated that more than 10% of Americans were born outside the US- certainly they are bringing some bilingual (if not multilingual) skills to the population. LDS adherents (Mormons) often learn at least one foreign language as part of their mandatory missionary assignments. Many of my college-educated friends and colleagues have had some exposure to a second (and in some cases a third) language, and some are quite fluent.

There was a thread that got pretty hot a few months back that addressed the subject of English as a global language. Those interested in the topic might want to do a search. Some of the comments I made in that thread reflect the same sentiments expressed above. I also cited a linguist (David Crystal, from Oxford I believe) who estimated that nearly one-quarter of the global population speaks English with at least minimual functional fluency.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 08:34 AM
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In light of this interesting discussion I had a business meeting last week in France.
Present were a spaniard, an italian and me (english). No french people. However french is the only language that we all three have in common and so it was that all three of us had to conduct a three hour meeting in a second language.

It made me feel very european and proud of our shared cultural and historical heritage.

Dr D.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 08:40 AM
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Let me clarify: While I am as aware and amused as anyone by the charming differences between British English and American English, I think they are entirely irrelevant when it comes to the sort of communication one has as a tourist in another country. In other words, I stick by my statement that "English (no nationally descriptive adjective) is the lingua franca of the world."
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 05:04 PM
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As a bilingual American (I speak German, too), I am not necessarily intimidated by Europeans but perhaps a little jealous. The reason they speak other languages, usually English, so well is because, as someone said, they are taught in grade school. The reason so many Americans have "barely coherent" language skills in anything but English is because we are not taught other languages until high school, and that makes a huge difference. Studies have shown that it is much easier for a child of, say, 7 years old to learn a language than a young adult of 14. So not only do they learn it for longer, but they are taught at their prime age.
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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 05:34 PM
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No, I am usually charmed by Europeans, impressed by Europeans, and most often, entertained by Europeans.
I think if I lived in Europe, I would speak more languages, but living in the USA, one does get along without needing to know French, etc. That problem is with our schools..not with being American.
I am more impressed by young kids who go to Europe with a backpack on their back and just enough to stay in a hostel and eat cheap food for months who never worry about the food, the bed or if anyone will understand them. Now that intimidates me!
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