Foreign Languages and Self-Delusion in America

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 multilingual?)

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.


*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.)