Friday, July 10, 2009

Learning a new language

Language is the vehicle of culture, I'm told,and virtually all our understanding of the world is incorporated into language. If we want to truly know someone, it helps to learn their language. When I'm in Europe, I encounter people who speak 5 or 6 languages fluently.

One time, I rented a car in Germany and drove to Nancy in France. I then got on the freeway to Strasbourg that has un-manned toll booths. I stopped at a booth, blocking traffic,to see if the multilingual sign had an English translation. none! The driver behind me came forward to help and asked me - in German (he noticed my German licence plate) - and I replied with one of the few German phrases I had memorized - "I don't speak German." He then asked me in French. I understood the question because I studied French in school and university but hadn't practiced it for years. Finally I asked him if he spoke English and he courteously explained to me -in perfect English - that if I didn't pay the toll posted, when I got to Strasbourg they would charge me to full toll from Paris to Strasbourg. I felt like a country hick in the big city while he was tolerant, understanding and competent - a man of the world.

But the best incident happened in Victoria, Canada at the time of the Queen's visit to the provincial capital. The Canadian Prime Minister had been unable to attend and was represented by one of our senators, Jack Austen. In his speech welcoming the Queen, Senator Austen expressed the Prime Minister's regrets that he could not attend - the crowd booed when the Prime Minister's name was mentioned (Pierre Trudeau was not popular in Western Canada because he had promoted Canada's policy of bilingualism and Biculturalism based on our two official languages, French and English.) Senator Austen soldiered on and repeated his welcoming speech in French - the crowd booed him again for speaking French.

Then it was the Queen's turn to respond to Senator Austen's welcome. It was devastating, the head of state for the English-speaking world replied first in perfect French. The crowd looked like beaten dogs but they didn't boo. I am not a monarchist but that was one time I felt proud to have a Queen. She was quick and classy and it was clear she was not amused. Her speech didn't mention the crowd's impoliteness. She simply said how glad she was to be there but the crowd knew they had been spanked and they dispersed with their tails between their legs.

I think it is a privilege to be able to understand another language and because language is the key to the culture of its speakers, it makes real communication between different cultures possible. I know enough French and Spanish that I can read books and newspapers in those languages. When I travel outside countries where those languages are spoken I feel a bit anxious and isolated but when I return, it's almost like coming home.

I can't understand why people -especially those who take pride in their rational approach to the world - would reject an opportunity to learn spanish. Learning another language is like discovering a new solar system with access to new people, new literature and music, new science and a new - sometimes disconcerting - perspective on your own culture and your place in it.

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