The Pax Americana and the English Lingua Franca

When I was in high school, I loved Rammstein. Actually, I still do. Some readers may recall that I went to see them in concert outside of Chicago last summer about this time. I always knew that I wanted to travel abroad and see strange places and learn new languages, but Rammstein made the desire for linguistic acquisition concrete. I had a present reason to learn: I needed to know exactly what Til Lindemann was growling about in their songs.

Fast forward about 15 years, and although my German has fallen off from when I actually lived in Germany, I was semi-fluent for quite a while, and my French was excellent, too. I picked up some Korean while I lived there, as well. If I put my back into it, I could have my German up and running again inside of a month, I’m sure. For whatever reason, I have a mind for language acquisition, and I would attribute that largely to memory, more than being particularly good at system analysis, which is really what language is. Language is a system of communication.

One of my best friends posted an Internet video from one of his liberal stupidity websites – there are so many, it’s absurd – lamenting the fact that Americans do not speak other languages. It compared the US to Europe, India, and other countries, and as sometimes happens, I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

Now I think you can probably infer from the above statements I have made that I strongly advocate learning another language. To quote Goethe, he who does not know another language does not know his own. There is great truth in that statement. It is impossible, in my opinion, to completely understand another country and its culture without having some linguistic foundation. In my experience, the characteristics of the people and culture are strongly reflected in the language.

German, for example, is a detail-oriented language. It works a lot like a fine German automobile: It is gorgeous in its mechanism when everything is functioning like it should, but the minute one tiny little gear falls off, the whole works comes crashing down, and you’re looking at a $5000 mechanic fee. Everything in Germany is like that. It is masterfully crafted down to the finest detail, but there are generally enough details, and they have just enough control over the whole, that if the detail is incorrect, everything else goes spectacularly to shit. But German is precise. Adaptable. Medical, at times. Cumbersome. Acoustically inelegant. These are reflective of Germanic culture.

Contrast that to French. French has rules, but much like English, it breaks them with impunity. France actually has an academy that regulates the language and throws words out of official use and adds those that are new and fashionable. It is the only country I know of that has an academy specifically to consider what is fashionable in speech. French is flowing, French is beautiful, French is rapid-fire, and French emotional. It is, quite simply, reflective of a people who place so much importance on beauty, art, taste, and good manners. It is a language that is made for dinner conversations where wine is flowing and everyone is yelling over the top of everyone else. Anyone who has been to a French dinner will know that this is standard, and emotions often run high. The Italian language – and Italian meals, incidentally – are the same way. That said, I have never enjoyed French more than when I was half-drunk on wine, eating cheese and dainty pastries, and talking about some politically charged subject. Gorgeous.

Most of my friends are fellow world travelers, and the majority of them have picked up at least one other language. Between the lot of us, I think we have German, French, Korean, Thai, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Hebrew under our belts, and those are just the people I can immediately think of. Sometimes I think my friends forget that we aren’t exactly the norm. We are a motley crew of nomads who have made it our business to immerse ourselves in random foreign cultures and make ourselves at home there. Most Americans don’t do that.

I made this point to my friend, but I did in a way that was rather defensive of Americans. There are several things one must consider when one examines the fact that Americans are not generally thought of as being great at foreign languages. My host mom in France was astounded at my French, not because I was that great really, but because I hadn’t been doing it that long, and the idea that Americans were terrible linguists was so firmly ingrained in her mind that she thought any knack at all made me a genius. The truth is, Americans are just as good at learning language as the next group when they want to be, but there are few incentives for them to do it, which I briefly explained to my friend and which I intend to do in long form here.

The first issue is that of relative geographic isolation. The US takes up a good portion of a large continent that is bordered on two sides by vast ocean, making it quite a hike to most of the foreign-tongued neighbors. Canada is largely an English-speaking nation, and I have never met a French-Canadian who couldn’t speak English, even if they had attitude about it. So right there, you have to sort of get your head around the vast expanse of territory that the US and Canada encompass. It’s huge.

Of course, Mexico and its neighbors are not English-speaking countries, but in the majority of places Americans will visit today – Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Tijuana, and the other major border towns – there will be plenty of folks who speak English, and probably good English. In tourist places, companies and locals have made it their business – literally – to be accommodating to American tourists. So some of that can be attributed to a simple desire to make money, and an appreciation on the part of the tourists not to have to worry about speaking the language during their vacation. People are willing to pay money for convenience. In fact, they are often happy to do so.

Americans, by the way, are not the only people who do this. I remember seeing hotels and tour groups in Cambodia that catered specifically to Korean tourists. Their Cambodian guides had learned Korean. The restaurants around those hotels all served Korean food. And you know what? The Koreans, as far as I could tell, stayed exclusively at those hotels and took those tours that catered specifically to them. They wanted the convenience. They weren’t coming to Cambodia to learn Khmer. (I love Khmer, by the way. I think it’s a very lovely language and far more pleasing to the ear than Korean.)

Something else to consider is that the US has been the major purveyor of culture and entertainment for the last 50 years or so. Most of the major blockbusters come out of Hollywood. American pop music can be heard in clubs around the world. American TV programs are syndicated everywhere. I have never visited a country that didn’t have McDonald’s. The post-war Pax Americana has been more pervasive and more penetrating than the British Empire could have ever dreamed of being. Capitalism and technological advances have ensured that the American standard traveled the globe at the speed of a telephone connection.

Because of America’s massive influence in culture and business, there has been both desire and necessity for other countries’ citizens to have a working knowledge of English. English has replaced French as the lingua franca of the world, and now you would be hard-pressed to find many places outside the zone of Anglo-American influence.

This has been seriously advantageous for all English speakers in that there is a real convenience for them when they travel. All major international airports have English signage. You can always find someone in cities who speaks good English. There is never a concern, unless you’re really getting outside of the city, that you won’t be able to make yourself understood.

Having a common language is a benefit to all people who do any traveling, honestly. It allows for a freer flow of communication, and it means that if you speak that standard language, you can much more easily navigate the world. I spent several years teaching English to Korean kids with the express idea that they would pass their middle school exams, go to high school and college, and land business jobs. Business jobs that require English. Business jobs that interacted with native speakers.                                                                 

Why English? Well, as I stated above, it’s partly because of the American capitalistic, cultural driver. I think there is another reason too, though: English is a fucking great language. Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad as hell that I don’t have to learn it. The thing that makes it tough to learn is the thing that makes it so great, though: English is adaptable as hell. I read a joke once that English corners other languages in dark alleys, hits them over the head with a lead pipe, and steals their shit, and that’s pretty damned accurate.

English is a borrow language. It is 50% French, give or take a few percentage points. English has rules, but it frequently breaks them, and those are rules of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation. These issues are seriously vexing to would-be speakers. The great thing about English though, is that it has a massive vocabulary, and it does an admirable job of absorbing words that it hears and regurgitating them into common usage. In that sense, English is kind of a “garbage language,” in that it is a mish-mash of a hell of a lot of random stuff.

English has an obscene amount of borrow words, and they vary widely based on region. Australian English borrows a lot of words from Aboriginal. British English has Gaelic (Welsh, Scottish, and Irish), French, and Indian, among others. American English has Spanish, French, Native American (various languages and dialects), German, Yiddish, and probably a bunch that I’m completely forgetting. South African English exists alongside Afrikaans, which is a weird mix of Dutch, English, and probably German. There are slang and dialect words from all of the Anglophone counties that, despite having had a lot of contact with them, I still don’t know. I still can’t understand Scouser when I hear it, and certain London accents still sound weirdly Australian to me. I mean, fuck me with a didgeridoo, right?

Something that a lot of native speakers of English don’t even consider is the English dialects that pop up that are spoken by non-native English speakers. Konglish is a real thing, and I bet Chinglish is, too. English is an unwieldy language, at this point.

I suspect the flexibility of English lies somewhat in its original composition. Modern English is about 50% French, but it has Germanic and Scandinavian elements, as well. Because of the way English developed, as a bit of a mish-mash language, it was sort of set up to be able to adapt to other languages. That’s not to say there are not other languages that function the same way, but English does seem to be remarkably good at what it does. It’s helped along by a phonetic alphabet. In my mind, any language that has a phonetic alphabet is a step ahead of the game. It’s the thing that makes Korean tremendously easier to get a grip on than Chinese or Japanese, at least for me.

In any case, the result of English being so pervasive throughout the world is that learning a foreign language is largely optional for English speakers, at this point. When I meet English speakers who are competent in more than one language, I assume they are professors, professional travelers or businesspeople, or they have family who are foreign language speakers. It’s fairly rare, at least where I am, to find people who learn a language just for the hell of it. They simply do not have the need or the interest. People who learn a foreign language just for kicks are generally intellectual (which is usually accompanied by higher intelligence) and high in trait openness. I would venture to say that the majority of people in this world are neither of those things.

All that said, I am really, tremendously on board with learning another language, even if only at an elementary level. It really will expand your understanding of your own native tongue, and it will help you learn a different system, so to speak. System logic is important for intellectual development. Besides all of that, if you get good enough at your chosen target language, man, you can start reading books in that language, and that is the tits, if you’re anything like me. I have stacks of German and French books that I have loved.

My current linguistic undertaking, leisurely though it is at the present, is Hebrew, which probably comes as a surprise to exactly zero readers of this blog. If you want to do the whole Jewish conversion thing, you have to learn some Hebrew. Realistically, if you want to be able to follow along with the parsha, recite prayers, and maybe be called up for an aliyah, you have to be able to at least competently read Biblical Hebrew. Obviously it is preferable to be able to read and understand it.

Speaking Hebrew is sort of a different ball of beans. Biblical Hebrew is not the same as Modern Hebrew as it is spoken in Israel today. Biblical Hebrew is “purer,” whereas Modern Hebrew has quite a lot of borrow words from Arabic and English. A lot of times I have seen Modern Hebrew written out with the vowel indicators, which simplifies things, as well.

Hebrew does have vowel sounds baked into the alphabet – or Aleph-Bet, if you prefer – but it functions differently than in English. Many vowels are omitted, and you are generally left with the root. Arabic and Hebrew both are “root” languages, meaning that there are word families that all stem from the same three-letter root. In this regard, there is some degree of ease to them because if you learn the roots, you can figure out what a word might mean, even if you haven’t seen it before. Of course, there is room for ambiguity with this, and there are Biblical mistranslations that have occurred because of misunderstood roots. One notable example of this may be the kashrut law that one cannot mix meat and milk together. There are some Biblical scholars now who believe this was a misinterpretation of the original Hebrew text.

In any case, I have not delved too far into Hebrew yet. I am still getting accustomed to the alphabet and reading it fluidly, and I am not there yet. It will be a few more months before I can zip through a few lines of Hebrew without stumbling a few times, although I’m already quite a lot better at it than I was before.

I have tried Duolingo a little bit, and although I have learned from it, I’m reluctant to recommend it. It is not my preferred learning style, and if I had not learned several foreign languages before, including one language with a completely different alphabet, I would be having a lot of trouble with it. I started at the very beginning, assuming that it would teach the letters first, but it does not. It just delves right into the words.

Again, I think for someone with experience with foreign alphabets and remarkably different sound combinations, this is a surmountable obstacle. I also realize that I am far from the norm, and when I think about what this would look like trying to teach my coworkers for example, I think one or two would find it challenging but doable, and the rest would quit almost immediately out of frustration, especially if there was no real need to learn. In my case, I have to learn, but I enjoy language acquisition as an activity, so it’s not odious to me at all. You could put just about any language in front of me and ask me to learn as much as possible as a fun afternoon activity, and I would not protest. I simply find languages fun and interesting, and I seem to have a knack for picking them up.

Actually, one of my life’s goals is to be a certifiable polyglot. Polyglots are people who can speak at least five languages with conversational fluency. If I can successfully acquire Hebrew, beef up my Korean, and polish off my German and French, I’ve got it. The foundations are definitely there. I do not know if I will ever actually accomplish the task, but it’s something to work towards, and having the goal in mind makes sure I keep my hand in it. I worked so long and so hard to develop competency that it seems like a shame not to keep going. And to be honest, if I can pick up Hebrew reasonably well, Arabic should come a bit more easily because of its similar nature, although I know that there are elements of it that are tougher, not the least of which being the writing system.

I think a lot of people shy away from learning a foreign language because they have this idea in mind that they won’t be or can’t be good at it. Of course, just like any skill, there are some folks who seem to come by the skill naturally. Some people are great athletes, some people are superb mathematicians, some people are terrific writers, and others are world-renowned builders or painters. Most of us will never be world-class at anything we do, but all of us can be truly great with at least one or two skillsets – enough that we are head-and-shoulders above our peers. Language may not be that thing for you, but that absolutely does not mean that you cannot learn another language and be conversational with it, read books with it, and gain much enjoyment from it.

Anyone who has the ability to read, write, or speak can learn at least one element of a foreign language. In my case, if I decide this weekend to sit down and learn the Hebrew alphabet in two hours, I can do it. I have a good memory, and language is kind of my thing. (So why am I not doing that? Jesus Christ, sometimes you have to write something down to see what you are doing wrong.) You do not have to choose a tough target language like Chinese, Arabic, or Hungarian, and you should not compare your rate of acquisition against other people. If you sit down to learn a language and are making progress with it, regardless of the rate, you should feel proud of your effort.

My suggestion when choosing a target language to learn is to tie it to something else that you enjoy. If you are a mechanic who occasionally (or frequently!) works on German cars, maybe you should consider German. Maybe your dream is to visit Paris. Perhaps you have a grandparent who is from Cuba. Choose something that would increase meaning in another area of your life, or choose something that may be useful to you in your career. I cannot overemphasize how valuable you will be if you have concrete business skills and a competent command of Mandarin. (Chinese is my vote for the language most likely to overtake English as the next lingua franca.) The point is, if you want to really put your language skills to work for you, as well as give you motivation when you hit an acquisition plateau, I highly recommend using it to increase value in another area of your life.

My original motivation for learning German was to understand the music that I liked. And believe it or not, Rammstein isn’t the only interesting music that ever came out of German-speaking countries. Bach. Wagner. Beethoven. Mozart. Brahms. Classical opera can only be sung in Italian or German. If you love music, Italian and German might be where you want to start.

Eventually, I decided I wanted to go to law school and specialize in international law. At that point, language acquisition was a necessity for success in my future career. Obviously I am not an international lawyer, but I will never regret learning other languages. Actually, I think language will still have its part to play in my professional life, at some point, although I’m not sure how as of today. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will just be something cool that I did that made me smarter. I don’t know, but I do not regret it.

If you have ever contemplated learning another language, today is the day. There has never been a better time in history to learn. There are plenty of online courses, of which I have zero recommendations currently, although I’ve heard good things about Rocket. If you have the time and the money and are in proximity, consider taking a university class. If you would rather learn by osmosis, there are lots of language opportunities, especially in the cities. I know Chicago has at least one or two German Stammtisch nights where German speakers can get together und quatschen mit einander auf Deutsch. Find a tutor. Buy some books and CDs. Plan a trip to a country where the people speak that language as a reward for yourself. There are so many ways that you can dip your toes into the linguistic waters that there is really no excuse for not doing so.

And on that note, I’m going to go bake some vegan donuts for the girls. Yesterday was National Donut Day in the US, and G-d forbid we miss out on that mess! Should I make plain glazed, chocolate, or both? Obviously both. Happy language learning, kids!