I speak two languages, German and English, which I suppose is not bad for an Anglo-American. I am learning Spanish now, which, if I succeed, will make me a trilingual. Someone once told me American trilinguals are a rare species. The old gag by comedian Eddie Izzard is that the Dutch speak five languages while being stoned out of their gourds on hashish, which should shame a sober Ami (as the Germans call us).
Bilingualism is hard enough on this poor noggin, but now that I’ve added (some) Spanish to the memory bank, I can feel my brain reaching not for a binary bin of index cards separated into two files, but cycling through a system of options. I’ll translate something from English to German in my brain, and then to Spanish, and then reverse the process, and invariably at some point, like a novice juggler, it will all come tumbling down and I’ll say “Shit” (or “Scheiße,” which is German for “shit.”).
I remember when I was stationed in Germany in the Army, and my friend’s Dominican girlfriend asked me, “Hablas Español?”
“Ja,” I said, which made her laugh. She’d asked me if I spoke Spanish and I’d answered “Yes,” except in German.
Why is it so hard for Americans to learn other languages? We know the standard reason, which is not without merit. Here it is in Hebrew:
אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט
Or, in English:
“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
The English conquered the seas, and thereby most of the world, and then this order of things was reshuffled after a couple of World Wars in a way that gave another English-speaking nation unrivaled global power (America this time). Throw in a massive technological upheaval on a scale with the Industrial Revolution that took place in California (also located in the United States) and English wins by default. I’ve heard, but don’t know that when a Japanese pilot is speaking with the tower at a Korean airport, both parties speak English. I’ve also heard that English is practical and spare compared to other languages, less concerned with granular differences in various concepts (we don’t have twenty-five words for snow) and our words are ungendered except in a literal sense.
If someone has no choice but to do something, they will get better at it than someone who has the option of either doing something or not doing it. And learning anything but English is, in a lot of international commerce, an option.
To cite one example of this principle, many years ago trained soldiers could load and discharge a musket at a rate that is very hard to replicate under real-time conditions today, even by small arms experts. And this is because even if you’ve never handled a machinegun, your senses somehow know that your life does not and will not depend on loading and firing a musket quickly to stop an advance of gray-backs or butternut Johnny Rebs on the charge, and so your mind is not compelled to learn.
Someone whose land has been colonized by fat white people, whose daily income depends on being able to steer business his or her way and ingratiate customers (say, for a cabdriver or a prostitute), will pick up the language pretty fast. The (usually-white) American, used to being deferred to, catered to and given a patronizing deference, probably doesn’t even suspect that when the cabbie gets on the horn with his dispatcher or the prostitute shouts something to another prostitute across the hall that they may be talking about the fat American in the fanny pack and Hawaiian shirt, and that what they’re saying might not be a compliment.
And the American is not much troubled by this. The thinking is, Let them hate so long as they fear, expressed also by William Burroughs in his book Queer about living the expat life in Mexico thusly: “I don’t mind people hating me. It’s what they’re in a position to do about it.”
Or expressed even more simply: Talk all the shit about me you want. I can’t understand you.
And yet the willful ignorance (or at least resistance) does not always flow from some collective font of geopolitical power. A stubborn refusal to learn the language of the conqueror, or at least the powerful foe, can also manifest itself among peoples who haven’t conquered the seas and the skies.
Roberto Duran, for instance, one of my favorite boxers of all-time, made it a point not to learn or speak English, except for a few words, which he delivered to the wife of “Sugar” Ray Leonard before their first fight. Duran, known as “Manos de Piedras” (Hands of Stone, or Stone Hands, depending on how you translate genitive constructs), once described as looking like a cross between Che Guevara and Charles Manson, fixed Madame Leonard with his black eyes and reportedly said, “Tell your husband I kill him.”
One of the happiest days in Duran’s life according to multiple accounts was when the Torrijos–Carter Treaties went through and the Panama Canal was once again in the hands of the people of the Isthmus and no longer a possession of the imperial Yankee swine.
Senator Manny Pacquiao, another great boxer and probably the most famous and beloved Filipino in his nation’s history, has spent many years in America, training and fighting, and working alongside master coach Freddie Roach, and yet he still struggles to string a sentence together in English. A tweet from Manny’s account a million years ago addresses the topic: “Tyong lhat pinoy ang slita ntin ay tgalog we should use our language we’re nt american, jpan,chna,atbp. They’re using there own language…We should proud in our language that’s the real pinoy yan ang tama thank you God Bless everyone.”
I don’t have a twitter account so someone else will have to go back and either authenticate or disprove the origin of the tweet, if they care that much.
But for our purposes, the relevant question emerges: Is there an inverse correlation between one’s pride or chauvinism in their own culture & language and their resistance to learning another language?
Returning to William Burroughs, can his assertion that there is a force within each of us not working to our advantage be applied to the learning of languages? Might we fear the entrance into our minds of another language, as if it were a form of conquest or some sort of diluting of the psychic stock or purity of the mind that comes with being a monoglot? No one wants to admit to being bigoted, or even acknowledge unconscious biases, but putting aside moral evaluations, is anything lost or altered when we become bi- or trilingual?
We’ve all been marinated in a culture that tells us knowledge is power and education is key (and I’m starting to think a lot of this has been done just to justify the out-of-control student loan ecosystem, which has turned education into one big hustle-cum-bubble), but I think at some level we fear what education may strip away from us, what vital élan will be dissolved or diluted when poisoned by total acceptance of the Other. We attempt to assimilate the Other, and the Other devours us, or at least that’s the fear.
You encounter this quandary a lot in black thought from W.E.B DuBois to James Baldwin all the way forward in time to a pale manqué of such men, like a Ta-Nehisi Coates. This charge of “acting white” was for the most part an “in-house” running conversation between various black intellectuals until comedian Bill Cosby started grumbling and set off a firestorm that brought even the first black president into the conflagration (with perennial candidate and seatbelt advocate Ralph Nader accusing Obama at one point of “talking white”).
Sticking with the subject of race and power vis-à-vis language, even if you hated someone, and actually especially if you hated them, you could do much worse than to learn their language. The asymmetry that comes from being forced to learn the mores, customs, and habits of those who are more powerful than you (people, to whom, you, incidentally, are invisible) is what has made asymmetrical, Fabian-like victories possible since the time of Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus himself.
How many American GIs in Indochina, some probably high-ranking, blathered about sensitive information while receiving a shave from a barber who, while invisible to them, happened to have a pair of functioning ears and also moonlighted as a Vietcong irregular by night? Similar-themed narratives from servants feigning docility and ignorance while secretly observing the foibles, hypocrisy, and degeneracy of their masters are staples of slave stories.
Note, that I am not honing my German or learning Spanish on a daily basis in order to conquer swaths of Western Europe or Latin America as a guerilla fighter under the guise of a domestic servant or barber. I’m doing it because I find it intellectually stimulating, fun, and challenging. Plus with all the resources available to us today, one really doesn’t have an excuse not to at least learn another language. One could easily become bilingual via YouTube alone, devoting probably half as much time to the effort as most people spend on searching for porn or keeping up with baseball box scores.
That said, if I were in public and perceived as an American (ugly, quiet, or otherwise), and were a conversation to start up within earshot in a language which the speakers assumed I didn’t understand, yeah I might play dumb, keep my mouth closed and my ears open and maybe get a chance to hear something I might not have otherwise heard. Maybe even something I wish I hadn’t heard.