Speaking the language of the land - Curt Yeomans

Speaking a foreign language, in a foreign land, is not an easy task to accomplish.

When I was in France last summer, I was faced with an interesting language-barrier dilemma. You see, I know some French, but only a little bit. I could have just said: "Oh forget speaking French. I'll just speak English and they'll have to get over it. Everyone should know how to speak English."

Of course, that kind of an attitude would not have gotten me very far in Paris. Parisians do know some English, but it is not their first language. It is not what they speak everyday when conversing outside the street cafés.

My conundrum underscores a point, though, and that is the fact that we need to be proficient in multiple languages. It is assumed in America that, since we speak English, everyone else should speak English when they visit this country.

It's a fair argument to make. Judging by the looks I got when I spoke English because I lacked enough knowledge of French to ask for what I wanted, I'd say the French expect you to speak their language when you're in their country, as well.

But that's the thing, aside from a couple of years of foreign language classes in high school, and some foreign language courses in college, the ability to be multi-lingual is not heavily pushed in this country.

That can be problematic when an American leaves this country's borders.

And taking that "You should speak English because I'm an American" attitude on the oversees road trip does not put you in good graces with your foreign hosts. Since you are dependent upon them for any assistance you may need, it's a good idea to not play "Ugly American."

One person in my traveling party tried this "I'm an American, you must speak English when dealing with me" attitude in Paris. What she got in return was responses that were short, and annoyed looks from Parisians, who were not amused. Of course, none of them got ugly by getting up in our faces and screaming: "You're in France! Speak French, you Yankee!"

When I tried to communicate with these people, I tried to do so in French. I got a better response from the same people, who seconds earlier, were giving mean looks to my "English-speaking-only" companion.

In one case, at the Panthéon, the guy working the admission booth decided it would be better if he spoke English after I said, "Deux billets, s'il vous plaît," with a slight southern drawl. His response was basically, "So, where are you from since you're obviously not from around here?"

Interactions like that underscore the need for Americans to be multi-lingual. We cannot assume that we, or our children, will spend our whole lives hanging out in the same neighborhoods in Jonesboro, or McDonough. At some point, we are going to have a desire to travel beyond our national borders.

We also have to accept the fact that some people will go oversees and insist on only speaking the native language of their homeland, whether they are a Spanish- or French-speaking person coming to this country, or an American traveling to another country. We need to be prepared for the languages we are most likely to face, at all times.

Now, I'm not advocating learning every single language in the world, but it would not hurt to know a couple of extra languages in addition to English.

If we choose to stick with an "English-only" mentality, we will be stuck up a creek without a paddle, if we are not prepared to speak the language of the land we are in.

Curt Yeomans covers education for the Clayton News Daily. .