Foreign Languages and Self-Delusion in America

March 1st 2014. This essay drew about 1,500 hits in two days, largely through Reddit, on February 21 and 22  2014. There were also many comments, most of them indignant. I am going to write an organized response one of these days, but since linking to  the Reddit posting of my essay is not guaranteed, this can wait.

4/12/14    This posting needs an update because the comments I received on Reddit about it are well worth considering and commenting upon. Feel free to send more comments.

I was going to write a book about the topic of foreign language acquisition and about the false stories connected to it. At least, I was going to write a longish essay. It does not look like it’s going to happen: I am too old; I have too many unwritten books already; I am slow; and there are too many women needing my attention.*

First, the context, I believe that every nation has its own specific, common form of mental health challenge. I don’t mean a kind of mental health problem unknown elsewhere; I mean a kind of mental health problem more common in the country of focus than elsewhere. Usually, it’s not a severe mental illness because, if it were, the nation would not have survived. It’s more like a neurosis than a form of psychosis.

So, as an example taken at random, the French form of insanity is the widespread belief that their nation is important in the world. Note that there is a sort of germ of truth in this delusion: France was an important country in the eighteenth century. Then, came the Revolution and then came Napoleon and then, the s… hit the fan and it has never stopped since.

There are several such American delusions. The most important – because it is so widespread as to be nearly universal among the US-born – concerns the mastery of foreign languages: Native-born Americans who were nearly all monolingual, or semi-lingual, until recently**, strongly believe that the world is full of people who know many languages. On the heels of this, they also secretly believe that- had they been given a fair chance – they too would be multilingual.

In support of my allegation, I bring the fact that popular authors, best-selling writers. take it for granted that American readers will not experience as a bump in the road of story telling any absurd assertion concerning language mastery. Below, an illustrative anecdote.

On p. 30 of his popular action novel Choke Point, best-selling author Ridley Pearson shows us a Chinese heroine who speaks routinely in Dutch and who, he mentions casually, also speaks “better than she write”: Italian, Russian and Arabic. Fortunately, she is also “fluent” in German. Count them; that’s six languages. In the remainder of the novel, she communicates quickly in English with one of her buddies. That’s seven language, which seems to be, somehow, the magic number.

There is no such person anywhere in the world. There is no one who is at ease speaking seven languages. There is no one who speaks seven languages even moderately well. It’s an urban myth. (That is, “speak” beyond saying,
“Bring me more beer, please.” I can learn to say that in nearly any language in ten minutes. This makes me?)

On the next page of the same book, an Egyptian overhears someone say something in Farsi and reports it to the police.

Here is the problem: The Egyptian’s native language has to be Arabic. He might understand Farsi, but he is no more likely to than I. In fact, he is a little less likely than I am to understand Farsi. Farsi is related to English, and to French (and to Icelandic and to Bengali). It would be easier for me to learn Farsi than it would be for the Egyptian. Farsi is related to Arabic only in the trivial sense that all human languages are related, somewhere. I suspect that what confused Ridley is the fact that Farsi is written in a modified Arabic script. It does not mean that the languages sound alike at all. Vietnamese is written in a modified Roman alphabet. It does not sound like Latin (or like French, or like Italian). And, by the way, modern Turkish is written in a modified Swedish version of the pan-European Roman alphabet. This does not imply that Swedes can eavesdrop on conversations between Istanbul rug salesmen.

Of course, it ‘s easy to forgive this novelist for his rank and deep linguistic ignorance (which he spreads, by the way, to his millions of receptive, unwary readers). The question is: Why does he go there at all? The statement about “Italian, Russian, and Arabic” plays no further part in the novel. He uses it only to paint a portrait. It’s a false portrait. Does this big-time, rich novelist not know that he knows nothing or little on the topic of languages? And why does he want to pretend that he does ? Does he pretend to himself or only to his readers. My guess is: to himself. It’s only a guess but I have been around the likes of him. Incidentally, the book is well written is most other respects. The author is no slouch in his own language, English.

This American false belief is contagious. Once, at a social function, another guest insisted on sitting near me during dinner. He wanted to speak French to me. He spoke to me throughout the dinner. Soon, I tried to get away but I failed. The sounds he made resembled French. However, I had no idea what he was saying. I was like a make-believe language children invent among themselves. The strange thing about this self-deluded middle-aged man is that I am sure he was at least bilingual.

He was a Hungarian who had lived in the US for forty years. He spoke Hungarian (Magyar) as a matter of course. His occupation required that he write at least simple English. He spoke English well but with an accent (as do I). When he advertised his electrician’s services on the radio, he mentioned that he was “fluent in six languages.” He did this although multilingualism was not relevant to the services he offered. (In my area, English and Spanish are relevant, and little else.) As a bilingual, he should have known better. His belief belied common sense and it reflected his environment This immigrant was so well assimilated into American culture that he had made his silly beliefs against which his own life history should have vaccinated him.

Mastery of several languages had become a part of the Hungarian immigrant’s persona. He was so deeply self-deluded that he had no fear of getting caught in a lie (as when he spoke “French” to me for more than an hour.) I am positive this man’s delusion grew here, in America. It does not seem to exist in Europe. On the contrary, Europeans tend to deprecate heir knowledge of foreign languages. I remember going to a pharmacy in Helsinki, Finland. The pharmacist wore a little British flag and a German flag on his white smock. He detected my accent in English and soon switched to quite serviceable French. The point of this nearly pointless anecdote is that he did not wear a French flag on his lapel. He did not think he deserved to.
Yet, he gave me the right medication. At least, I am here.

In America, otherwise honest people routinely lie about their knowledge of foreign languages. I patronize a very middle-class coffee shop where the barristas and I play light flirtatious games involving the French language. I will say, “Bonjour, Liz; tu es si belle aujourd’hui.” (“Good morning, Liz, you are so beautiful today.”) After a while, the whole thing becomes predictable to the girl behind the counter who answers without missing a step, “Ah, merci.” Often, guys in the line – apparently challenged in their manhood – will volunteer that they don’t know French, “only Spanish.” (Hey, this is California!) Being retired, I have time to act the bitch so, usually, I engage them in Spanish. Invariably, they muter and actually step back as if in physical retreat, as if I were threatening them, as if I was about to bitch-slap them too! An astounding percentage of the time, they declare that their Spanish is “rusty.” Apparently, they prefer a stock, accepted answer to being caught in a childish lie about one’s knowledge.

I am describing here. I am not sure of the causes of this peculiarly American form of collective insanity. And remember what you read above: I have not faulted anyone for his ignorance of foreign languages. That would be another topic altogether. I have not even come near it. The present topic is a form of mild but persistent collective insanity. And keep in mind that simple incompetence does not come close to explaining the falsehoods: I couldn’t bat against a Little League dropout but I don’t go around pretending my batting is pretty good though a little rusty. And I don’t pretend I know a bunch of Gitanes-smoking Frenchmen who can bat the hell out of the ballpark.

There is a sort of mystery there.

THIS WAS A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT

*Some readers will wonder what my qualifications are to discuss this subject and be too polite to ask. Here they are:

I am able to work in French as well as in English. This includes writing. (I am a sociologist by training and a short story writer by avocation.) Some of my work is published in French, most is in English. I speak Spanish convincingly so long as a the conversation is simple and concrete. I would be unable to teach anything in Spanish without further training. I write in Spanish but badly. I read that language with no trouble. Like all well-educated French speakers with some aplomb, I guess easily at written Portuguese and Italian. Speaking either is touch-and-go. Writing either is not even a no-go. (People with “some aplomb” are those who know what “aplomb “ means.) Like many French-born men, I know enough German so that I might be appointed kapo and so, get double rations if the need arose.

**“Until recently” because there are now many America-born children of Spanish-speaking immigrants with various levels of competence in Spanish (Most can speak, few can read; the number who can write seems to me minuscule.)

About Jacques Delacroix

I write short stories, current events comments, and sociopolitical essays, mostly in English, some in French. There are other people with the same first name and same last name on the Internet. I am the one who put up on Amazon in 2014: "I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography" and also: "Les pumas de grande-banlieue." To my knowledge, I am the only Jacques Delacroix with American and English scholarly publications. In a previous life, I was a teacher and a scholar in Organizational Theory and in the Sociology of Economic Development. (Go ahead, Google me!) I live in the People’s Green Socialist Republic of Santa Cruz, California.
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15 Responses to Foreign Languages and Self-Delusion in America

  1. Pingback: Foreign Languages and Self-Delusion in America | Notes On Liberty

  2. Bruce says:

    Thought provoking as always. I noticed in my foreign travels that a good number of people understand English but don’t want to admit it. I guess it’s a pride thing. I also have seen when I attempt to speak their language, I get a more favorable response. (even in France) I think that’s understandable.
    Practically speaking, I think it’s time for Americans, especially younger ones, to learn Spanish. We’re well on our way to not only the 11 million illegals becoming citizens, but to having open borders. These new immigrants in all liklihood will not be interested in learning English as a second language. What we have now is a government where two branches (Legislative and Executive) are conspiring to increase the size and influence of government against the wishes of the people. What did we expect? Even though much about Obama was not, and is still not, known, there was enough to see what we were going to get. It’s not a Republican / Democrat deal either. Both are members of the exclusive elite club of Washington power brokers. There was never a recession in Washington, there are building cranes as far as the eye can see and they never stopped. The best grocery stores I’ve ever been in are in Georgetown. They always have 500 brands of cheese and every gourmet food item you can imagine. 7 of the 10 richest communities in America are around Washington, D.C. The political class has always lived large, but never larger than today. Once Obamacare is fully implemented and these same people control healthcare and we have 50 million freshly minted Americans eager to share the American dream (read entitlements) it’s pretty much game over for small government fans like me.

    • Bruce: As I said in the essay itself, the subject of Americans’ ignorance of foreign languages is another issue. It deserves its own treatment. It’s more difficult and more boring than what was my topic: collective insanity.

      ON the subject of Spanish-speaking immigrants willingness to learn English, how shall I say it to sound both clear and moderate? Here, I got it: You are 100% wrong . I spoke about this at length in several postings. Did you miss a lecture or two, again?

      I have a good mind to send you to the Principal’s office

  3. Bruce says:

    As you know, sometimes I just don’t know what I’m talking about because I don’t have the necessary facts or experience. It could well be that after Congress stumbles and Obama is forced to grant citizenship to 11 million plus illegals via Executive Order that they quickly learn English, find jobs, stay off the welfare rolls and pay taxes. Even with our high unemployment, this could actually boost our weak economy. These new Americans may buck the trend and vote Republican in the 2014 election cycle. John McCain and the GOP leadership could be right on this one, I’m just having a difficult time seeing it. It’s good to know they will at least willing to learn English.
    I was sent to the Principal’s office regularly in grade school. It was before Ritalin and Adderall was so widely available to help rambunctious boys like me.

    • In the proposed Dem comprehensive reform package about illegal immigration, the provision regarding learning English is the most laughable, for several reasons.

      First, what’s intended? Little Jose gets a D in English and he gets thrown over the border? Or, Dad fails English 102 and he is expelled and the kids starve? Miss English class one more time and you will find yourself in Tegucigalpa? Absurd, of course.

      Second, there is huge evidence that Mexican immigrants and others from Latin America are eager to learn English and that they work hard at it and spend a lot of money to do it. (Pick up any paper in Spanish and you will find that a large % of the ads are about learning English.)

      Third, if I were a honcho in La Raza, I would quickly get this provision thrown out by the courts on the ground that it’s arbitrary because there is no (NO) official language in the US. (And, by the way, don’t sell me short, I just might become a honcho in La Raza.)

      Focus, Bruce, there will be a quiz. OK, you have told me that you are habituated and that you fear not another trip to the Principals’ office. Hw about the shame of failing a quiz?

    • Bruce: In the proposed Dem comprehensive reform package about illegal immigration, the provision regarding learning English is the most laughable, for several reasons.

      First, what’s intended? Little Jose gets a D in English and he gets thrown over the border? Or, Dad fails English 102 and he is expelled and the kids starve? Miss English class one more time and you will find yourself in Tegucigalpa? Absurd, of course.

      Second, there is huge evidence that Mexican immigrants and others from Latin America are eager to learn English and that they work hard at it and spend a lot of money to do it. (Pick up any paper in Spanish and you will find that a large % of the ads are about learning English.)

      Third, if I were a honcho in La Raza, I would quickly get this provision thrown out by the courts on the ground that it’s arbitrary because there is no (NO) official language in the US. (And, by the way, don’t sell me short, I just might become a honcho in La Raza.)

      Focus, Bruce, there will be a quiz. OK, you have told me that you are habituated and that you fear not another trip to the Principals’ office. Hw about the shame of failing a quiz?

  4. Herpy McDerp says:

    “So, as an example taken at random, the French form of insanity is the widespread belief that their nation is important in the world.”

    Stopped reading there. Looks like France is still important enough to be hated by Brits and Americans.

    • atoulme says:

      Herpy, I am a French immigrant and I witnessed the visit of our president. He was small time compared to Elon Musk and the other heavy weights of the valley. He pleaded for help and tried his best to get the expatriates to come back with the following tirade: “The tax rate you have here can change quickly!”. Just look at the mix of immigrants leaving the country and you will understand how the young generation is not buying in the French dream anymore.

  5. Herpy: Interesting comment. I suspect it’s not the French doings that provoke hate but the after-image of some of their past actions. Interestingly also, there is a permanent large minority of unconditional France lovers in the US. ( I don’t like most of them on sight.) Somewhere in the back of my mind is the notion that it’s an important divide, that it’s sociologically important. Another book I won’t write!

    • Thomas H. says:

      Sir: Also when one wonders about France, there is the glaring image of the French kings which might even override the image of the “French lovers,” as in fact many do not even pay attention to the rigorous, detailed, and complicated, modern French polity – now socialist – of which the very influence makes for willful ignorance in many places and parties. The column and comments here are really good. Great!

  6. Roibeárd says:

    “There is no one who is at ease speaking seven languages. ”

    • Sorry, I could not open it. (I am interested if its not a joke.)

      • I saw it; thank you. I had seen the documentary before. However, I did not see or hear what you seem to say you saw or heard. I heard a young man exchange basic greetings in five languages, and have short spirited exchange in another (Mandarin). He also bantered in baby talk (French) with a taxi driver which takes next to no knowledge. I also saw the young man studying several other languages actively. I go to the gym every day, that does not prove that I am buff. He speaks intelligently about language though a little pedantically. I have not doubt that he is extremely gifted. It’s possible that if I heard more, I would agree that he knows several languages well. This documentary does not show this. I might then have to agree that there is one person who knows more than seven languages well. And, if there is one, there must be ten, or even a thousand. It does not change my point much, if at all. By the way, I saw another documentary (on public television) of a man who, given a date many years into the future could tell you in seconds on what day of week that date fell. So?

  7. Thomas H. says:

    Sir: This is a wonderful column and you need know you should publish your book on language as there might not have been anything written authoritatively on your topic in fifty or more years (there’s an old, pretty good text by Seleskovich that applies here, but read it a long time ago, and the author himself was also apparently quite aged upon his completion of the text). The study of language(s) as a parody is embodied to a large extent by the U.N. and like associations, full of non – governmental people who speak “nine or ten languages fluently”, for example. This is another reason there are difficulties in things like business and academia and the like, your apparent specialties. My crucial and life – eventful (changing) experience at one time was to have wandered into a pharmacy in a very strange country and after having looked in my book, crudely asking for toothpaste and getting a reply that directed me in correct fashion to the toothpaste “shelf.” You can imagine. Thank you for your editorial here.

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