Monday, April 16, 2012

The One-Language Mindset

Last week, two Germans came to the bookstore.

It took me a little while to figure out they were German; one responded in accented English when I asked if he needed help (first clue), and I heard them intently discussing a road map in German later on (near giveaway). As they wandered the store, I began to mentally whisper the German I remembered, hoping to recall something I could say that would not make me look like first-year student, and I began the Great Internal Debate of whether or not to speak with them.

You may think this would be an easy decision - I am capable of speaking with them, why not just do it? If the situation was reversed, then it certainly would be an easy decision. Most Germans can speak multiple languages, and an American going over there (more often than not) will even expect the Germans with whom they interact to speak English. But the double-standard is that Germans coming here are expected to speak English. Such is the common American mindset: we speak English, and so should everyone else.

I abhor that mindset. It's arrogant and rude and unrealistic, and it needs to change. Lots of Germans visited the bookstore in New Mexico, and half the time it was my shyness that kept me from speaking to them. The other half, it was a combined fear of a) looking like an idiot to the foreigners, with my broken speech, and b) looking smug and superior to everyone around me who didn't speak German. There's a sense in America of almost being viewed as a show-off if you suddenly start using a second language. Immigrants and Spanish-speakers often get a pass on this, and being surrounded by Hispanics in New Mexico made me somehow feel more comfortable using German. But for Americans in 95-percent English-speaking communities, abandoning your Muttersprache is a no-no.

The thing that, in the end, made me push aside my shyness and speak with them was the idea of being in a country where most people don't know or care to speak your language at all. Vacations can be stressful enough, but when you're functioning in another language the entire time, it's exhausting - even a little bit lonely, I imagine, if you have no other option. I knew that if I was in their shoes, I would feel welcome and just a little more at home to have someone speak my own tongue with me.

And so, I spoke to the Germans from Stuttgart, who actually thought German was more difficult to learn than English (as Mark Twain did). They politely said I spoke very well, especially considering it's been ten years since I went to Germany. One especially seemed to appreciate that I stepped out of my comfort zone to speak with him, and told me about the son they came to visit, who was studying medicine at the university.

I only made a fool of myself once or twice as we talked. It was totally worth it.

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