America: Lost in Translation

One of the obvious differences in going to another country is the language. Zurich isn’t the best example of how alarming it can be to dive fully into a place in which your language isn’t spoken. Here, there is an incredibly high percentage of people that speak English. This is in part because Zurich has become so central for global business that connects them back to the United States. But I also think Switzerland plays host to a lot of English speakers because of the diversity found in a centrally located city like Zurich. It draws from it’s borders with Italy, Germany, and France. It attracts people from a number of Asian countries. And as these people come here to work or travel, they typically arrive knowing the shared language of communication: English.

So Katie and I don’t have it so bad. The majority of people we run into in Zurich speak our language, or at least enough of it that they can help us find a train ticket, or point us to the bakery, or whatever. But that doesn’t mean we don’t encounter those awkward moments with the small percentage of people who don’t speak English.

Yesterday, I went grocery shopping. One of the things I needed to find was fabric softener. Our washing machine difficulties can tend to leave some of my shirts a little ragged, so we were looking for a remedy. When I found a grocery store clerk, in her late forties, I asked her where they kept it. And if you’ve ever been in another country, you know what this dance looks like. I say the word fabric softener like twenty times. Trying not to be too offensive, I take the woman through a round of Taboo, hoping she knows at least one of the words. Laundry? Soft? Clothes? I even try my hand at Charades, pinching my shirt and showing her the material. Because that helps, right?

Later, Katie and I discussed it. We realized, and I’m looking for feedback on this, that the people least likely to know English in Zurich will be the one’s with less educational opportunities. On our last trip, we found the rural areas of Switzerland had a much smaller percentage of people that spoke English. This time, I’m bumping into grocery store clerks and servicemen that give me a funny look whenever I ask them for something. And that seems to make sense. In fact, the handful of folks we’ve run into that speak English in these positions are much younger, perhaps college students working part time. So I do wonder how common it is, around Europe, to see these kinds of educational gaps and what emphasis there is on learning English, or a second language at all.

So how does this connect back to America? Well, a 2012 study showed that only about 18% of Americans claim to speak another language. By comparison, 53% of Europeans can speak at least one other language. For some reason, it’s just not an emphasis. To our slight shame, neither of us knows another language. Most of our family and extended friends don’t either. We thought about the two things this can mean:

1. America’s position in the world has created a vibrant dependency on the English language. I don’t know enough about the reasons behind this evolution, but I’m guessing it’s in part because of America and in part because of how widespread English influence was during Colonialism. Either way, it’s hard to deny the fact that English plays a massive role in connecting businesses and people worldwide. It offers a bridge between Katie and her fellow employees, whether they be local Swiss, temporary employees from Italy, or engineers hired from Japan. We like to look at this centrality as a positive, if not prideful, truth about our world, but it takes us on to the second point…

2. Our position has created a culture of comfort and expectation. We might want to shrug our shoulders at this, but a lot of people don’t like Americans. In some of the bureaucratic processes Katie and I are going through, there’s a lot of bias against American people. And I’m not pointing fingers, because I never really learned a second language either. But there’s something shocking about the 18% statistic I referenced before. In that same study, they showed that the number of elementary, middle, and secondary schools that taught second languages would be decreasing in coming years. Why? I’m a teacher. I totally understand experiential learning and I’m on board with more direct, trade-school learning, too. A young man might want to be a carpenter and might not feel that he needs to learn Spanish in order to succeed in his trade. Totally fair.

But I’d also push back and say that this lack of emphasis on learning language can also be a sign to our youth that their comfort is all that matters. Be American. Be proud. Enjoy this, and only this. Sure, we teach history. Sure, second languages are offered. But how often did you feel that the point of Spanish class was really to learn the language? Isn’t it viewed, like so much else, as one more box to check for that college you want to get into? And if our system treats it as a check box instead of a valuable piece of education, are we missing an opportunity to expand our appreciation of other cultures and fully engage with the other?

We’re also encouraging an attitude of, “You should come to us.” English equates to power. If you want to live here, learn it. If you want to talk to me, learn it. If you want to engage in relationship or conversation, you come to me.

I’m just as guilty of that mentality as anyone. But I wonder if that’s really where we want to be or who we want to be? Language is just one facet of how we learn to appreciate other cultures and view points. We can study history, or live in another place, or seek diverse relationships with people who’ve come to live where we are even. I’d love to hear thoughts on this, because I know you can live a wonderful life in your corner of the world without ever learning another language. But I wonder, too, what we want for a future generation?

Below: Just a few pictures from the past couple days! Thanks for reading!

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Speaking of lost in translation: These are our pepperoni pizzas. Take a closer look.

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These water fountains are everywhere! And you’re allowed to drink from them.

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Katie waltzing into the Swiss version of Antrhopologie.

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Cool statues that reminded me of Dante’s depiction of Betran De Born

2 thoughts on “America: Lost in Translation

  1. I thought your observations were well thought out. I experienced this personally myself over 30 years ago. I went to Japan as a missionary. I was not part of a large missions organization and had little or no knowledge of the Japanese language prior to going. I was not part of a large missions organization and had little or no knowledge of the Japanese language prior to going. What would stop others from attempting this was a desire to talk about Jesus to others who would never otherwise hear about Him. After arriving in Japan it was amazing the sheer number of people who did not speak English. Again, as you mentioned, Scott, it was college students, who spoke English but in most cases they had never spoken to a native English speaker. So their English was as funny to me as my Japanese was to them! It became a personal quest to study the language and it took the greater part of 2-1/2 years to get it down. 2-1/2 years! This was attending a university 6 mornings a week to study the language. My teacher said it would be impossible to learn the language, much less to read and write it, in less than 8 years and even then it would be fragmented.

    To my professor’s surprise I became very proficient in Japanese. And I was in my mid 30’s when I began. After awhile I became better at it because there were no other English speakers around. And then something happened. The Japanese people became very humbled and proud of me because they knew their language was incredibly difficult to learn for students, much less than a man in his mid 30’s. I began to have in depth conversations with the people. I was invited to their homes, to schools, to factories, to speak with government officials, to speak at a major university in an Engineering class and to attend conferences where I was the only foreigner. I was able to share about Jesus to a people who wanted to know more.

    As I made this effort I was no longer confined to the prefectural capital. I traveled about the country by myself by train, bus, ship and car. I understood the culture and successfully carried on a business teaching cooking as a means of support. In short, I became a native speaker and was not limited to experience Japan as a tourist. Speaking the language literally opened up the country to me. I could write a book about this. But learning the language changed my life forever—-and the lives of the people I met. To this day I have rich, rewarding friendships with people who are successful leaders of Japan all because I took the time to learn their language. You can too. Make the effort. But, sadly, as Scott observed already, Americans in general won’t make the effort. “They will have to learn if they want to talk to me” we may think. But we are the ones who are crippled. English IS the universal language. But there are OTHER languages in this world. Make a difference today wherever you are. You may never know that the person you just spoke to, as in my case, became an incredibly successful pastor of a church who led hundreds of people to faith in Jesus Christ, who in turn led thousands more and that church sent out the area’s first missionary to the world—all because I cared enough to go and to learn the language.

    • Thanks so much for this. Loved reading it and really hope others get the chance to see it. A great, worthy message added on to mine. Thanks again! Thanks for connecting it back to your faith, too. I didn’t point my own blog back to Christians, but I did hope they’d realize the beautiful thing of extending bridges across cultures and languages in order to spread the good news of Jesus Christ

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