The Americans, the French, and the English, are criticized regularly for their overall mastery of foreign languages. The very low level of mastery, that is. There is plenty of self-criticism around this failing, as well. It is indeed likely that if you consider the educational resources of these countries (compared to the poorer countries of southern Europe, for instance) and correct for size of country, the expected level of second language acquisition is low. But I have not seen any data. Regardless, each country has its own explanation for this presumed fact. They range from the biological through the geographical to the ideological.
I have been pleasantly surprised, though, by the number of people I have met since moving to Madison (WI) who have willingly launched into speaking French or German once they know that these are among our family languages. Not showing off. Just connecting with us. Actually, it is not merely the number of people speaking these languages that has impressed me. It is the people doing the foreign language speaking.
As just one example from over the last three weeks, our 16 year-old wanted to join the cross-country team at the local high school, but was told that he had arrived too late in August to start, and that the team was full. After prompting from my friends Anne and Sari during our morning run, I rode my bike over to the high school. The school has a huge, brick entrance with a large number of steps bracketed by white pillars. It was impressive to me because I went to a small high school (a majestic-looking one, but small). Being in this one gave me the feeling of being in a movie or in the TV series Glee. I stopped one of those cute, long-legged girls who runs track and field, and asked her where the athletic office was. She explained very thoroughly, and off I went. The athletic director was in a meeting with the swimming coach, the secretary told me, but I could wait. So I did.
I milled around the outer office like a nervous teenager: I didn’t know what a cross-country team was all about; I hadn’t been in a high school forever; I was afraid that the athletic director was going to make fun of me or belittle me for not organizing cross-country for my son before arriving from France. He was one of those guys who you know was once good-looking in a jock sort of way, is still good-looking in a grey-haired sort of way, and who has some nasal American accent. West Chicago? I wasn’t sure. He was commanding and flirtatious. If he had told me to run around the block 20 times, I would have.
I was finally sent into the office. The athletic director listened, remembered meeting my son and my husband, and the whole moving-from-France story. And, then he switched to French. I do not know about you, but I don’t associate an episode of Glee with the athletic director speaking French, even though I have only seen two episodes. On airplanes. And not several words, but whole sentences of fluent French. Meanwhile, I wrung my hands and twisted my Adidas running cap, and switched my weight back and forth from one foot to the next as I pleaded with him to talk to the cross-country coach. He told me that I looked good in purple, but to wear blue next time (apparently the school color), and sent me away. And now my kid is on the cross-country team.
Only two days before meeting with the athletic director, I was at my son’s sailing camp, waiting for him to go out on the water. I was a huge sailor in college, and I wanted to see my son do this. Somehow I struck up a conversation with one of the counselors. It sounds trite, but I couldn’t tell how old he was. 15? 20? 25? I told him we had just moved here and he asked from where. When I told him, he mentioned he had just gotten back from a semester living in Germany. Ah! I said, my husband is German, and we speak German in the family. So, he switched to German for the next 10 minutes, and every other time I ran into him. And even though 6 months is not long, those months plus four years of high school German seemed to have done him well, because it was quite fluent.
And then there was the cashier at the grocery store who spoke French….