Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Letting Go of the Language Wars

I had an interesting encounter today.  I met an American woman who is here with her husband on a short-term assignment and she told a very typical story with an atypical ending.  She lives outside of Paris in a rural area and when she arrived here she was very enthusiastic about learning the language and integrating  into French culture.   She took lessons for a few months but family matters and other things made it hard to keep up.  Very recently she made a decision that I think was very brave - she decided to stop the lessons and just get by on what she is able to pick from the people she meets.  Why do I think this was a good and brave decision?  Because, in spite of a good enthusiastic start, the lessons had turned into a source of stress and guilt.  Instead of just enjoying being in France, she was starting to beat herself up for not making faster progress.  It takes time to learn a language and not only did she not have that time but, given the short period she and her husband will be here, it's not realistic to think that she will achieve enough fluency to feel successful before they are off to another country and another assignment. So she lowered her expectations and will try to learn as much as she can in the time that she has here.  Wow.  Takes a lot of maturity, self-knowledge and lack of ego to come to that kind of conclusion.

Learning another language isn't easy but, all too often, we are unreasonably harsh with ourselves.  Almost all of my French friends have said to me, at one time or another, "Je suis nul en anglais."  A common topic around the table when I meet up with expats from all over the world is the shame and the frustration they feel at not being able to communicate fluently in the local language.  Some give up.  Some soldier on.  And the few that truly have become fluent are genuinely admired as people who have suffered and earned the moral high ground .

What I find striking, however, is how much moral judgement we place on ourselves and others when it comes to learning (or not learning) a language.  This activity seems to be loaded with all kinds of moral baggage and I think that's a shame.  I don't think it has ever helped anyone be successful and I strongly suspect it fuels failure. Furthermore, I don't sense a lot of love for language itself in this war that goes on inside people's heads.  Do my French friends who have struggled with English classes in high school and university love English?  Not necessarily, for some it's more like penance and many are ecstatic when they pass their Bac and never have to crack open another book or be forced to formulate a grammatically correct phrase under the critical eye of the prof.   Do my expats friends here love French?  Same answer only they are adults so the agony is usually self inflicted.

I think we need to put this topic in perspective.  It takes hard work but learning a language should never  be an exercise in suffering and self-loathing.  There are very good reasons to learn another language but "because other people think I should," isn't one of them.  Just for fun, here are a few ideas that might help us all relax:

Fluency is Relative:  What exactly does "fluent" mean?  Does it mean, "able to hold a conversation in that language" or does it mean "read, writes, and speaks like a native speaker?"   Think about all the grey space between those two extremes.  It's entirely possible that some foreigners can speak French quite well and have a hard time writing.  Others might be able to read and write very well but can't order a baguette in a bakery.  Some people can read, write and speak but (like me) retain their accents.  Henry Kissinger was a great example of this.  Even the Frenchlings who are bi-lingual have strengths and weaknesses in the other language (English).

Even Native Speakers Make Mistakes:  So how high do we set the standard for fluency?  If we set it too high, I know a lot of native French or English speakers who would fail it.  I had a French engineer at one company who was a brilliant IT guy from a good French engineering school who used to send me emails and reports that were filled with French spelling and grammatical errors.  At first I assumed he was lazy (not one of my better moments as a manager) but I finally figured out that he really didn't have a very high level in French despite being born and raised here.  Check any Internet site (English or French) and read the comments section and you will find varying degrees of mastery of the language.  Walk the streets and listen to people in casual conversation.  It's not an either/or, fluent/not fluent,  situation - it's a continuum.  Very very rarely are people perfect.  Yes, even people who have spent their formative years studying the language make mistakes.  No reason for you to think that you have to meet some unattainable standard of perfection before you write something or open your mouth.

It's Not a Test of Intelligence:  I know a lot of really brilliant people who are mono-lingual.  My French mother-in-law, for example, is one the sharpest women I know and she's managed just fine with just French for 80 years.  To my knowledge there is no evidence that says that bi-lingual people are smarter (or get fewer cavities) just because they have a second language.  If you find it rough going  in the beginning or still speak with an accent after 20 years that doesn't say anything about your IQ.  Some people learn to play violin or ride a bike faster then others too but we seldom question the native intelligence of the others who take a little longer to master these things.   Struggling is not a sign that you are stupid, so stop beating yourself up.

It May Not Even Be Necessary:  Now isn't that a radical thought?  Wherever you go it might be perfectly OK to muddle along in a language you already know or just learn enough to get by (like the American women I mentioned above).  Only you can make that decision but be honest about it.  If you really want to work for a French company, for example, it's probably required.  But you don't have to work for a French company if you don't want to.  It will be harder to find a job in English or Japanese, for example, but it's not impossible.  It is entirely possible to live in another country (and live quite well) without ever becoming fluent in that language.  My favorite example is a Frenchwoman I knew in my youth who lived over 30 years in the U.S. whose English was nearly incomprehensible.  Was this a problem?  Not at all.  She worked as a French teacher at a local private school and had enough English to get by.  I had a Norwegian cousin in Seattle and he too after over 30 years in the U.S. had very halting English (he worked on a fishing boat with other Norwegians).  Similar story with a French executive I knew in Tokyo who lived 10 years in Japan and his Japanese was nearly nonexistent.

I am not giving those above examples as models to follow.  All I'm saying is that these people got by just fine.  They learned enough to be able to do the things they wanted to do.  They led good lives and were sincerely missed when they passed on or went home.   A missed opportunity?  Perhaps.  But, if you are going to make a moral argument that they should have done differently then I would ask that you explain why. What social contract do you think they violated and what harm do you think they caused?

Good Reasons to Learn Another Language;  Personally, I think the only good reason is "because you want to."  It's a way of opening up to the world.  You'll be able to communicate with all the other speakers of that language who may number in the millions.  If you want to work internationally, you'll have more opportunities.  You'll be able to watch movies, see plays or read great literature in the original language and not have to suffer through sub-titles and bad translations.  If you are an admirer of another culture, you'll have access to all the cultural goodies that may not be translated at all.

But the very best reason, in my view, to learn another language is sheer love of the language itself.  Because it's beautiful.  It's a lot like learning to play the violin - you may screech for the first couple of years but, one day, you will draw the bow across a string and the resulting note will be pure magic.


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