Feb 16, 2014

Competitive Envy

poison envyThere is an icky US car commercial that is being aired during this year’s Winter Olympics season. I feel as if it is taking on a problem of international relations that does not need to be played out in this way.  The commercial harnesses international clichés to be ironic.  And it makes me very ill at ease. 

Here is what happens:  A rich American guy is seen standing next to his swimming pool, outside of his luxurious (but, FYI, totally soulless) house.  He ironically refers to the materialism of the US.  Then he notes that some countries criticize Americans for working so hard (thereby financing materialism).  Those countries, the guy reminds us further, take the entire month of August off to go on vacation.  If you do enjoy working, and take just two weeks off in August, then you too can own a Cadillac. 

The guy gets into his Caddy, winks at the camera, and says “N’est pas?”  Subtle, huh?

Hello.  You can go see it, if you really need to, right here: http://www.ispot.tv/ad/7BkA/cadillac-elr-work-hard

It is an embarrassing, cloying, commercial, but it points to something very important, negative, and intractable in international relations. I call it “competitive envy” because it involves people trying to elicit envy -- over goods, institutions, and experiences -- in people for whom those particular things are not important and sometimes even frankly abhorrent.

This behavior occurs at the country level, but you might have experienced it on the individual level, so you know it when you see it. The sport of eliciting envy for competitive reasons happens when the person you are talking to tries (without subtlety) to make you envious of something.  That something is not a thing you desire.  Not even remotely.  You are happy for them, but very far from envious.  And you deeply wish that they would not desire you to be envious about something you do not want.  This type of competitiveness is very un-pretty.

For example, an acquaintance tells you in great detail about how their child was accepted at a school that is everything you distain in education.  The children you have met from that school make your skin crawl and you are often tempted to recite to them or their parents empirical findings showing that emotional and social intelligence (not nurtured in their school) is far more important to success than standard analytic intelligence.  You are not defensive (you can afford that school and your children would probably be accepted).  You are annoyed.  Their motivations are transparent.  And being told what to value in a competition you didn’t even enter is unbearable.

Or someone tells you in that “please envy me” way about a 1000-acre ranch they just inherited in Montana.  “Sorry,” you think, clenching in order to refrain from blurting it out, “While I am happy for you, I don’t like the outdoors.  And the closest I would get to a horse would involve a ticket to ‘Equus.’  Let me be happy for you without envy.  ‘Kay?”

I am not an envious person. I am very happy with what I have and if I want something else, then I go out and get it.  I can be happy for others, but never envious.  Envy seems to me to be a passive and hopeless state that I am not familiar with.  I was a child totally without envy because all of the things around me that might have elicited envy were simply too far away to elicit this emotion.  Pretty girls?  I was a chunky girl in an era and in a place where anorexia and bulimia were just a fact of life.  My hair, as I have written in a recent post, was not a good candidate for the “shag” haircuts of the time.  Straight, long hair, parted in the middle, was the look; my hairstyle resembled a Brillo pad.  I didn’t have any of the looks; I had none of the "in" clothes.  So when I watched “the Brady Bunch” on TV, I thought that Marcia and her sisters were otherworldly beings.  I wasn’t envious; envy would have required some distant possibility, some remote similarity, where there was none.  So I spent my childhood learning to find the things I really wanted and to go get them.  Not to wish I had something completely randomly valued by someone else, and to envy them that thing.

I also don't want anyone to envy me.  My assumption is never that others want what I have or what I have experienced. Wishing someone were envious of you is akin to wishing they were holding their hand to a hot iron.

At the country level this game gets played all of the time, and it is even more cartoonish.  It is Americans saying that the French should envy their US luxury cars, and the French saying that Americans should envy French vacation time.  What do you say to this?  If pushed, you finally have to say (if you are French) that you don’t care about Cadillacs (they are big, gas guzzlers), and to say (if you are American) that you wouldn’t trade work situations (because more vacation would involve accepting workplaces riddled with conflict, party politics, and people who don’t want to work).  This is what the car commercial is saying.  It isn’t pretty.

I suffered through these conversations face-to-face when living abroad.  French people wanting me (as American although living and working in France) to envy them their schools or their café-sitting.  Or even just assuming that I do.  What if I don’t?  How could I possibly respond to this without starting an international incident?  European researchers have tried to make me envious of the fact that their job involves no teaching of university students at all. I had that job for 14 years myself.  It in no way made me happy.  I became a university professor in order to teach university students, so why would I be envious?  And do Americans do this to others?  They must, because the car commercial that I just described must be speaking to someone.  Not everyone is catching on to the creepy irony of it; some people want to play the sport of competitive envy.  People all over the world do this.

Is it too much to ask people to get over their belief that others value the same things that they do?  And is it too much to ask people to be satisfied without it occurring at the psychological expense of others?

Being the envy of others should not be a goal.  N’est pas?

Jan 18, 2014

Curly Hair

One thing that internationals were exposed to around my dinner table when I lived in France was the launching of a conversation about the physical appearance of men and women in different countries.  This discussion was used tongue-in-cheek (by me) to replace those weird dinner party games that I saw played by adults of my parents’ generation, such as “pass the grapefruit.”  My discussion topic was a way to be intimate while talking in abstractions that no one would consider entertaining at work or in another setting.  Usually our dinner parties included at least one American (me), a German (my husband) and a few French people. Often they also included Portuguese or Slovak friends as well.  

So, I would ask the men, “Where in the world, for you, are the women most beautiful?” This usually led finally to a convergence on Brazilian women, whose beauty, I always pointed out, was confounded a bit with the teaspoon-sized bikinis that they were observed wearing.  Or at least imagined to be wearing in the conjurings of the men at the dinner party. Eastern European women often benefitted in these conversations as well.  When queried about men, I found that women agreed less.  Israel, Afghanistan, Germany all emerged from time to time.  Although to the average reader this might sound like an exercise in fostering clichés, or just not PC, this is the kind of conversation that ex-pats entertain very easily.  And in addition to enhancing intimacy, it also focuses people on what they like about another country (although inevitably, it is true, no mention of beautiful people comes without snide comments about countries where the men or women are definitely not beautiful).

The fact is, particularly for culturally homogeneous countries, people often feel as if they have extracted a template, or prototype of the people of a given country. They then make predictions about national origines based on those prototypes.  It is just one of many snap judgments people make as they negotiate their social lives.  Some percentage of the time, depending upon experience, the prototypes lead people to correct judgments.  When I was in Nashville on a girlfriend weekend this fall, I looked over at men standing at the far end of the bar – too far away to be heard – and predicted, “See that young guy over there, and the older one, maybe his father?  They are German.”  They were.  From Munich.

One thing I noticed when I moved to France was that my incredibly curly, nest-like hair, was not a common feature of French women.  Most of them, more than in the United States, have straight, dark hair, sort of like Amélie Poulain. Or Juliette Binoche. I don’t look anything like Amélie Poulain. My hair makes me look more like a medusa. Or Cher from the 1980s. Anyway, getting my hair cut at a salon in France was an immediate challenge. Not only were stylists unaccustomed to or untrained in cutting curly hair, but not a single stylist in any city would let me leave the salon with wet hair.  Either she would blow my hair straight, leaving me looking like a wet dog, or she would use a diffuser and add “volume” to my curls until I left looking like Bozo the Clown. I would beg to be allowed to air dry my hair, but no. It was unthinkable to let a client leave the establishment unstyled.

So, in desperation, I became truly French and agreed to have my curls cut short and my hair blown-dry: The gamine look (although no other aspect of my physical appearance is gamine-like). Usually the stylist also colored my hair so that it possessed a purple-ish hue. I changed stylists many times over a period of about 10 years because, although I came to speak French fluently, I could not communicate what I wanted done with my hair. My sentences were correct, but the impact was zero.  Perhaps the overlap between my desired appearance and any knowledge the stylists possessed, was just too slim. Occasionally I thumbed through magazines that were lying around the salons, intently trying to find a photograph featuring a model with curly hair. There were none. 

Ten years after moving to France, sporting my short blown-dried Amélie hair, my family and I moved to the United States for a year long sabbatical. It was August and rather humid when I arrived and, not surprisingly, my blown-dry helmet of hair started to frizz. “Hey,” my then-new- acquaintance -- now friend -- Anne snorted, looking carefully at my hair. “You have naturally curly hair!  What on earth are you doing blowing it dry?” My husband echoed, “Yeah, what are you doing blowing it dry?” 

I sighed.

But I should not sound too beleaguered because my friend Clarrette, also an American living in my town of Clermont-Ferrand, could always top my stories. “Do you think there is a decent salon in town for women of color?” she would ask me rolling her eyes ironically. “Our closet is a veritable drug store of hair products purchased in the States. It takes me days to do all of the girls” (she has three daughters). “Or else, we all take the train to Paris and spend a fortune!”  Clarrette would shake with laughter, revealing her strength of character.

In the end, like most things about me that are “different” than the typical French woman, I just got deathly tired of talking about it. Clarrette was also philosophical about this reaction. “You know what is wrong with you all (i.e., you ex-pats),” she told me, “You just aren’t used to being minorities!”


Jan 11, 2014


Two nights ago a man, a farmer, who I have known and idolized since I was 8 years old, passed away at the age of 87.  Raymond was uncategorizable.  You might not believe me, since I just told you that he was a farmer.  Clear-cut category, right?  You would be wrong.  In addition to being an American History buff, he loved opera.  Raymond had traveled far beyond his native township in Wisconsin, not only because he served in the Navy for four years during the Korean War, but also because he was curious.  Raymond stopped by to admire my mother’s tulips on our family farm last June.  I was afraid that it was a good-bye visit, because his health had been failing for some time.  But Raymond hung on for six more months.  What made the visit feel like a good bye was that he explained so much of himself to me, and the stories added to the rich texture of my perception of him as uncategorizable. 

In the Korean conflict, Raymond was an underwater welder.  I had known that fact about him for years.  One glorious fruit of this talent emerged in his granddaughter, now an expert welder, who also creates works of art with this technique; her grandfather’s legacy.  Raymond took his time telling me about what wet-welding entailed, and dwelled particularly on the danger posed by the necessary super-high voltage, in addition to the conductance of the water.  He was smiling as he savored these details, and I shivered.  Weren’t you scared?  How come you did that? I asked many such questions.  Raymond shook his head, still smiling, and said, “Well, it was an adventure I guess.  I was young and I could do it.”  That day in June, Raymond skipped over any discussion of finding and collecting body parts around blown-up ships.  I was grateful for that.

Another thing that Raymond told me felt at once like a good bye, but also like a hello (a sort of Welcome back to the United States after living abroad for so long).  He said that he was very happy to be an American, and also to live right there where he lived and farmed the land.  No angst, no self-consciousness, no regrets.  The comment about being American wasn’t linked to the stories of the Navy.  It emerged from his unconscious as a sort of assessment of the world as he had seen it, near and far.  Not a patriotic statement, but a summary of the best representation of his values, good and bad taken together.  As for the specific farmland he was referring to, in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, he was just admiring the beauty.  He told me that he never tired of it.  Not a single day.  And finally he admitted that he wasn’t ready to leave it.  But he did.  Just two days ago.

I thought about Raymond when I was reading the latest social psychology of ideology of sorts.  Haidt and Wilson ask, in a recent TIME article, “Can TIME predict your politics?”  They write, “Research by Sam Gosling, at the University of Texas, has found that liberals generally score higher than conservatives on the trait of “openness to experience.” They are more likely to seek out new experiences (such as fusion cuisine), choose to watch documentaries, or enjoy art museums. They have less conventional notions of what is proper in a romantic relationship, so solo pornography consumption is OK. Conservatives are more likely to stick with what is familiar, what is tried and true. Hence, they are more likely to use a PC than a Mac and are more likely to stick with that PC’s default browser, Internet Explorer. Conservatives score higher than liberals on the trait of conscientiousness. They are more organized (neat desks), punctual, and self-controlled (rather than emphasizing self-expression).”  So, on-line, you can find out how “liberal” or “conservative” you are by completing a short survey.  These kinds of tests use beliefs and preferences (in this case) that just happen to be correlated with a predicted variable (like endorsement of a political party or an ideology) to indirectly assess the latter. 

When I read through the items on the test, I suspect that the reason that they discriminate well between people with different ideologies is because strongly ideological people are very worried about their attitudes towards objects and behaveiors that are (frankly) arbitrarily associated with their ideology. They are especially worried about public expression of these attitudes.  Ideological liberals, when they read the TIME piece, will double their love of fusion cuisine and sweat openly but patiently through their spouse’s dallying.  They’ll try to persuade themselves that their son or daughter skipping classes at that expensive art school is correct in their insistence that self-expression that is un-fettered by training is better than actual art instruction.  Strongly identified conservatives will throw their cats into the street (because the Humane Society would be a liberal destination) and trash their iPads.  Oh how ideology simplifies personal expression! 

Me?  I just got cowboy boots for Christmas.  Probably, I will use them to go dancing to Country & Western music.  Although I love dogs, I have only cats.  I love Brazilian-Japanese fusion, but a great cake donut from Greenbush Bakery is what I crave of a weekend morning.  What a world that I live in!  The place I live in my head is one that doesn’t help me complete the TIME survey in any meaningful way and still live with myself.  I inhabit a place where I can be uncategorizable and still recognize that American citizens actually do not all have the same possibilities and benefits and that some indeed need to be helped by the collective; where Teddy Roosevelt, originally Republican, thought we should define public lands and keep them safe, as precious natural resources for future Americans; where FDR really did help people psychologically, including my own relatives, during and after the Dustbowls of the 1930s (despite what revisionists, who focus only on some non-emotional aspects of economics, may write). 

I live in a state where Raymond was born; that was the birthplace of Lincoln’s (anti-slavery) Republican Party, home of La Follette’s Progressive party, founders of the first public Kindergarten in the US, first passers in the Union of laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation (in 1982; and, when Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus signed the law, he said that "It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love." Interesting).  And, I acknowledge, a state that also stumbled through McCarthyism and has missed huge opportunities during the present Governor’s term (except the opportunity to elect the first openly lesbian US Senator, which was an opportunity that was not missed).

Not even the ideology of specific states of the Union should be simplified and clichéd. Complexity; I learned that from a lot of farmers.  And as for Raymond, I think that when he visits it’ll be as a hummingbird.  He loved them so.

Dec 17, 2013

The Big Apple

Statue of LibertyMy husband and I took our boys, 10 and 12, to New York this fall.  My kids like to visit big cities, having spent a lot of time in Paris, Chicago, and Munich (OK not so big).  After arriving in Penn Station at 9:30 p.m. my youngest did stride confidently and alone toward a men’s restroom until I caught up with him to say that, here in New York City, he had to be accompanied by a parent to public bathrooms at night.  He wasn’t being so much naïve about safety as he was sure he could deal with whatever might arise.  So I told him he was wrong.  I lived in New York City when I was a young child (ages 3-5), and I was taught otherwise.

It was a great week.  The kids loved seeing the Lion King, they loved the water taxi that took us around the Statue of Liberty and then up to Midtown and back down to the Battery on the Hudson; they loved Times Square at night (and wanted to go again and again); and they loved Korean barbeque in Korea Way.  They were wowed by Grand Central Station.  They liked taking cabs and the subway (which, annoyingly, all other members of my family kept calling the Métro).  Being sensitive to and interested in accents, they finally heard someone order “cawfee” and receive a cup of “coffee” for their coins. 

Both boys wore Green Bay Packers hoodies around the city and they drew out hundreds of conversations that I would never had had without them.  A young man behind the counter at a pizza parlor held up his own customers while he discussed the Packers’ schedule with Sebastian.  On the water taxi the heavily Brooklyn-accented tour guide, who was fascinated with Aaron Rogers, the Green Bay quarterback, held forth about the Packers over the microphone and asked the kids to perform the “Discount Double Check,” (an Aaron Rogers move from an insurance company commercial).  We had to remind people that we could be from Wisconsin without ever having been to Green Bay, but whatever, they all thought that Wisconsin seemed exotic and far away.  (And since then we did go to Green Bay, to Lambeau Field for a game; an experience that was worth every penny.)

I love New York City, and don’t buy into simple clichés about it.  I don’t find New Yorkers pushy or unpleasant, for instance.  Pushy is just an empty word for “surviving in a dense urban space located on an island.”  Another trait word or combination of words would also do just fine.  Like “frank” or “direct” or “efficient.”  I also disagree that New York City “isn’t really American.”  Europeans in particular love to say this. 

To me, New York City is completely and truly American.  New York City is the gateway through which immigrants arrived in the United States.  All of my relatives did.  New York City accents are for me the very sound of America.  The direct style of friendliness is also American.  And most of all, in New York City, the people you meet (and I met so many from the Midwest in just four days), well, they are just so curious.  Truly curious about life and about you and about what is going on around them.  An American characteristic (according to data on culture) is the desire and ability to make emergent social groups out of whatever feature or experience could possible bind you together and be discussed and cherished (like loving the Green Bay Packers, for instance, or – if you like the Packers and I like the Giants – just the fact that we follow football will do).  And in New York City, people do this.  This American characteristic, as I mentioned in my post “Getting to Know You,” is viewed by those outside the culture to cause superficial relationships.  But I believe it is an honest sign of interest in others and a motive to connect. 

I was at a conference in midtown Manhattan a number of years ago.  The conference was the meetings of the American Psychological Association and it involved so many people that we had to move around continuously from one convention location to another.  In moving around midtown, very few of us remembered to remove our nametags (which of course labeled us as members of APA).  As if in a Woody Allen film, we drew New Yorkers into discussion like flies to a carcass.  Everyone wanted to discuss the fact that we were psychologists and that we were all in town at once, as if creating a therapist buffet.  No one was concerned about the fact that ¾ of us were not therapists at all.  The curiosity was almost suffocating.  But it was also exhilarating and sometimes hilarious.

The final cliché with which I take issue is the belief, mostly of non-Americans, that New York City is the only place to live in the United States.  The city is a wonderful place.  But as my parents later told me, when they moved to Manhattan with two very young children for two years, one of the factors that made them most excited to embrace everything about the Big Apple, was the knowledge that they were not living there forever.  Some people want to come and live in the city just for a while.  And that’s OK too.

Sep 22, 2013

Trop Fac(e)

Imagen de Titeuf
A few years ago an American academic living in Paris mentioned to me that kids coming back to France (and maybe other European countries) after a year of high school in the United States (the famous “junior year abroad”) typically have one thing to report: “Trop fac(e)! So easy!”  In French schools the level is higher, she asserted. FYI, this was very important to her to believe because her kids were attending high school in Paris (at international school, which she considered to represent French schooling).  I pushed back: “Everything you say implies that US schools are not as good as French ones.  But then there should be some evidence for that.  Like the PISA report?  And there isn’t any such evidence.  So, do you have new data or are you just perpetuating a cliche?”  She said the latter.  Bravo for the insight.

I’ve heard this story a million times now:  Someone says, “ouais, my friend’s niece (or nephew, or daughter or son or neighbor) spent a year in a US high school. They loved it.  And they said it was trop facile. Trop fac(e)

Now there have been plenty of international rankings and analyses of education and educational systems.  The PISA report (2000, 2009) is just one.  The recent synthesis of educational outcomes by the Economist, which I mentioned in a previous post, also comes to mind.  None of these surveys show that French primary and secondary education is better than its American counterpart.  There are problems with both systems, they are not the same problems, and the result is kids with good and bad aspects of their education.  But no one seems to outperform the other.  French kids’ ability to memorize mathematic equations appears better.  But, on most counts the American system actually ranks higher than the French one.

I have never met a French exchange school student who was doing poorly back in France, so I sure hope they were doing well here.  But I have heard the Trop Fac(e) comment so many times that it makes me wonder what this perception serves besides the strong need among the French to believe that everything is better there, and the bizarre need for some Americans to think that everything is better there (in France) too (at least during the time they are visiting, as is the case with the American academic quoted above).

I also have wondered how the Trop fac(e) cliché is perpetuated.  It seems to me that at least three thought processes support the faulty conclusion.  These are: 1) the FUN = EASY equation, 2) the, “I am taking the same classes as everyone else, because in my country all students DO take the same classes (and thus my information is sufficient for a judgment)” assessment, and 3) the “I represent the average student” calculation.

1.   The FUN = EASY SCHOOL or FUN = NOT EDUCATION equation.  I don’t have to unpack this equation, but I will.  It means: if I am having a good time, enjoying learning, or finding it easy to understand, then the content must be simpler, just not as advanced as if I were struggling, hating the class (or the teacher), and just generally miserable. So it could be that some French or other European students return from their year abroad and say: “I really liked it, it was fun.  And it was really easy for me.  THUS…. American schools are inferior.”  There is also a hidden aspect of this equation, which is that “public education” in American high schools usually also involves civic engagement, clubs such as debate, forensics, Model United Nations, theater, chess, AND all those sports teams. These other activities are part of the process of forming the educated adult. The notion that the school shares in fostering the qualities of civic engagement and application of knowledge characterizes French schooling far, far less.  

2.     The “I am taking the same classes as everyone else” Assessment.  When we moved three of our children to the United States two years ago, and put one of them in public high school, we noticed that every student did NOT take the same classes.  A student who was in their third year of high school could have been taking advanced calculus or advanced algebra. It depended upon that student’s progress in math.  Similarly, the student could be taking Spanish 1 or Spanish 4.  Our kid, coming from France, took Spanish 3, with other juniors, and found it very hard and excruciating in the amount of homework.  My friends’ kids who were taking AP American History cried at night because they had to read 100 pages of text a week and write one essay per week.  With all the heavy work going on around me I could only wonder how exchange students are placed in classes.  Do schools assess their math skills and make sure they are at the right level?  Are language skills assessed too?  And, related to Point 1, do the exchange students also spend hours on debate team or leave early in the morning for the two hours of swim practice?  Although I have no evidence, the facts that in France students in a particular year of school all have to learn the same content and that the schools are not responsible for the skills that are considered to lie outside of the curriculum suggest to me that exchange students are not having the same educational experience as the American students of their specific caliber.  And about caliber…

3.   The “I represent the average student” Calculation.  Who goes on a year abroad, anyway?  Interestingly, I don’t think that the American kids and the French kids who leave their country for an exchange year are the same population of kids.  I would absolutely want data on this, but when I was growing up, my peers at my very fancy private high school only went abroad when one of their parents took them on a sabbatical year.  And those kids very rarely went to a foreign public school in the sabbatical location.  Almost always they went to private, international, school.  In contrast, the kids I know who went to Europe or somewhere for a year to stay with a family and go to public school came from much more simple situations in the United States.  The flow in the other direction is not the same.  So far, all of the French exchange students I have met (and the ones I have heard about) come from fancier or at least more special circumstances.  Their bourgeois parents are very worried about their child’s level of English, so they sign up for some program and send their (relatively-speaking) fancy child to a very regular high school in the United States, where all of the other faulty thinking can take place.

If you think about it, these elements – which may be statistically true – can continue to support the perception that American high school is Trop fac(e).  But this is too bad, because, of course, the real story is the idea, embedded up there in point number 1, that American schooling involves the possibility of doing many other civic, academic, and athletic activities that then produce a different college-ready individual.  Indeed, a very different adult.  I then get those college-ready people in my university courses.  I know which ones I like to teach.

Aug 21, 2013

Language Luck

http://languagestranslationandmediaatswansea.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/languages.gifMy four sons speak the languages English, French, and German, and they all got to that tri-lingual state in approximately the same way. That way involved luck and good fortune, and only modest challenges. Take Alex, my oldest stepson.  He was born in Boulder, Colorado and was then whisked off to Konstanz, Germany with his German father, my husband, and his French mother.  From the age of three (and until 18), he was raised in France.  For the most part, his parents spoke to him in their native tongues.  When Alex was 12 years old and had become my stepson, we spent a sabbatical year in the United States, after which he and I spoke to each other in English.  There have been booster shots in the form of classes and travel.  But mostly Alex got the gift of tri-lingual gab from the hard work and complicated lives of his four parents. 

Our younger sons, Sebastian (12) and Benjamin (9), grew up until the ages of almost-8 and 10 in France, going to French school at first and later a French school that was associated with an international school conducted in English.  Since we moved to the US, their father keeps up his 70% German (30% laziness involving responding in whatever language was just addressed to him), and they get boosters every week in the form of a French teacher and German child sitter, in addition to travel. 

Easy-peasy for them compared to the experiences of most people. 

Markus and I also speak English, French, and German fluently (Markus being more perfect in his other languages than I), but we reached our second and third languages through much harder work and no luck in particular. Some people think that Markus must have a natural talent for languages, but he denies this.  His grades in English in gymnasium, he points out, were very low. No, Markus works hard when he takes on a language.  We have stacks and stacks of flash cards (about 500 cards each) of Spanish, French, Italian, and Hebrew (he worked on an ulpan – a language school located on a kibbutz – in Israel for six months) words in the attic. Markus put in years (in number of hours) of effort to learn the languages he speaks. Each language was a choice and entailed Herculean effort. Did I mention we have a lot of flash cards? 

I started learning French when I was 36 years old and I learned to speak it fluently, although it took at least four years, because much of the reading and writing of my professional work continued to be conducted in English. Plus, I never had a French boyfriend. So, total immersion does not describe my life in France (as I discuss in my post “Lost in Translation”). I experienced total immersion when, at the age of 20, I traveled to Germany for a month-long course on language and film.  Of course, I arrived having already taken 12 years of German in school and on the university, so the pain and investment had preceded the trip. In contrast, my friend Jennie moved to total immersion in Brazil for a year without speaking Portuguese.  She said that after four months she could speak pretty well, but that the four months involved nights of sobbing alone in her room out of exhaustion and total despair.  I get that.

All of this wailing and gnashing of teeth flies in the face of a cliché, no a myth, really, according to which a new language can be learned just by being around other people who speak that language. FYI, a country of people doesn’t teach you a language.  If you are Anglophone, there are so many ways to get by without ever learning the language of a different country, even if you desperately want to.  There are the problems that many of your new friends end up being speakers of your language, that English is easily available everywhere, that the populations of most northern European countries (for example) are required to learn English in school and thus might not let you bumble through even half a sentence before switching to your native tongue, and that ones family or work life may continue to be conducted in English.  These problems can be most severe for adults, but they also affect the language learning of children.

There are also habits that are hard to break.  When I met my husband, he didn’t know that I could speak German and I was too afraid to tell him auf Deutsch.  I only know this declaratively, I can’t imagine now being afraid to speak German to him; I was a dolt.  So I have the habit of speaking to my husband in English.  I can only break the habit when actually in Germany, where I do speak to him in German. Similarly, my kids speak to me in English.  If I speak to Alex now in French he just looks at me like I am an irritating noise and switches to English (unless we are conversing with other French people, but even then he looks at me ironically).  He thinks speaking with me in French is like performing on stage and he can’t abide it.  Habits also go beyond the identity of the listener.  When playing a card game or board game learned in a particular country, Benjamin switches to that language automatically.  If he is playing, in the US, a game learned in France, he whines “Mais arrettttte” (“Cut it out!”) when annoyed by his brother, for instance.  The game is sufficient to create a cognitive context for the language habit.

This all sounds like lots of fun, but isn’t.  The reality of parental modeling of language, given all of these habits and barricades, speaks to another dearly held cliché – which I might at first pass seem to be perpetuating – whereby kids become bi- or tri-lingual just because their parents have different native tongues.  I have implied that it is easy or lucky for the kids, but for the parents it is not so easy; in fact it can be hell.  The less support you have for your native tongue, the harder it is.  Markus labors to speak German in a francophone context.  In our informal surveys we have found that a few people plough ahead and manage to model their native language; many more people just throw up their hands and give in to the majority language. You also swim upstream against biases and attitudes that the context holds about your native tongue.  I got plenty of very negative feedback when speaking English to my children in my French hometown.  Sometimes the reaction was that it was too loud, sometimes just jarring in its foreignness, sometimes people assumed that this meant that my children were not learning French.  Markus calling out to the boys in German in a park was not met with smiles at all. (But here is a happy contrast: the state of Wisconsin has so many people of German descent that when he speaks German here, the ambiance in a public space becomes positively cabaret-like; either people speak the language too or they just love to hear it).

The fact of the matter is that language is so psychological and so dynamic that its use can’t be seen as a skill acquired either by luck or hard work, but more a potential, the possibility for a particular cognitive capacity in context.

Still, people like Markus demonstrate that you can learn a language if that is what you want to do. 

Recently a Portuguese friend taught me (on Skype) to sing the first verse of the Brazilian jazz number “The Girl from Ipanema” in Portuguese.  It took a long time just to be able to sing the lines of just one verse.  But I was highly motivated and once I got a little, I sensed I could be motivated to learn a lot more.

But not right now.