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News and views from the German-language region of Europe

May 27, 2005

"I had 2 years of French"

Filed under Back in the USA

Actually, in my case it was 5 years of French. I was in an accelerated learning program in St. Louis, and we had foreign language instruction starting in the 5th grade. But after working with German for about 30 years, today my French would suffice to order a simple meal, and that is about it.

But did you ever ask someone whether he speaks a foreign language? The answer will differ, depending on whether you are talking to an American or a European.

If you ask an American, the answer might be "I had 2 years of French". That's how many people in the United States assess their foreign language abilities. 2 years of instruction in any foreign language won't make you fluent, just like 2 years of piano lessons won't make you a concert pianist.

Recent stats show that only 10 percent of U.S. college students are enrolled in foreign language instruction. Most of them will be finished after a couple of semesters – not enough to be fluent, but enough to say "I had a year of French".

By contrast, if you ask a European whether he can speak a foreign language, the answer will probably be either a "yes" or a "no". And if he says he can speak a foreign language, he really can. Approximately half of Europeans speak at least one other language than their own. In the USA it is about 9 percent, according to the 2000 census.

Many Americans who travel abroad expect their hosts to speak English. And with the wide usage of English around the world, a lot of hosts do speak English.

In our church community, this means that Americans who visit foreign, non-English feast sites expect to have an English translation during church services. If foreign language speakers visit the USA for the Feast, though, that courtesy will not be extended to them, with the possible exception of Spanish.

Language reflects culture, so it is no great surprise if people who are ignorant of languages other than their own tend to be culturally insensitive, even if they don't want to be.

I believe this is reflected in the "tourist minister" approach of assigning a non-resident pastor to oversee a foreign area. A "tourist minister" who visits an area a couple times a year will understand the local culture about as much as a married couple will have a close relationship when they see each other twice a year for a couple of weeks.

You have to live there to really understand what is going on, and even then you won't understand it fully. I spent the first 18 months of our 6½ years in the Philippines learning how to pronounce all the names and discovering what words in Filipino English had different meanings than in standard English.

Oh well, I've had 30 years of German. :-)

Paul Kieffer's blog with personal insights and news from the German-language region in Europe.


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