Last Friday I mentioned that I believe everyone should speak more than one language*. There are a lot of reasons to have at least a working knowledge of another language. Some are practical, some are a little more touchy-feely, but I’ll try to keep it all relevant.
Let’s start, though, by acknowledging the argument which people never fail to use: Yes, it is true, you can see a lot of the world and never have to learn another language if you already know English**. You do not need to be bilingual, or even fluent, in another language in order to be successful when traveling etc. However, as English speakers, we tend toward an expectation that other people should know how to speak English as well. People actually become furious when someone doesn’t speak English, mostly if they are in the States, but I have seen Americans get frustrated or angry when they are visiting another country and the person doesn’t speak English. I mean, really? Stop making us look bad.
In case this isn’t clear: If you’re in someone else’s country, it’s your fault if you don’t know how to speak their language.
There, I said it. That wasn’t a thing I thought I would need to say, pretty much ever, in my life. Until I had traveled and run into other people from the States, who subsequently embarrassed me and everyone around by being the biggest wads possible, I wouldn’t have even thought of including that piece of advice. But here we are.
From what I can determine, most people get upset because they are afraid. They are afraid of change and afraid that they are the ones at fault. Many are worried that if people around them are speaking a different language, they are being purposely excluded. Believe it or not, most people have better things to do than talk about you behind your back***. The irony is that they feel entitled; they have convinced themselves that everyone should speak English to accommodate them, as if other people are at fault for knowing more than they do.
Obviously I believe the opposite. Speaking different languages was absolutely the most important and life-shaping event from my childhood, although I didn’t know it at the time. I can honestly say I would not be the same person if I did not grow up speaking two languages. It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like.
Because of this, it does bother me when I cannot understand, but I know that I have no one else to blame for my lack. I am used to knowing what is going on, because I speak multiple languages. The only logical course, therefore, is to learn as many as I can. And while I recognize that this works for me, because I love interpretation and linguistics, it may not work for other people. But if you don’t feel comfortable learning something else, at least recognize that this doesn’t somehow make it the other person’s fault.
*= My opinion on this matter has not changed, if you were wondering. You’ll see.
**= Though some of us only half-know it.
***= I said most people. I can’t promise anything.