All / Originally Posted on Skirt

Language Barrier

A few days ago I was at Maison Thomas, the famous and excellent pizza restaurant in Zamalek, eating something with lots of mushrooms when I noticed a guy eyeing up my pizza in the mirror above my table.  Maison Thomas is decked out in French continental style, lots of dark wood, high tables and mirrors with fancy writing on them. 

It turned out the guy was the Canadian commercial ambassador and we had an interesting and wide-ranging conversation on politics, history, my studies, and most interestingly his take on learning local languages in the countries where he gets posted. 

He figures since he rarely needs the local language to get by there’s no point, really.  Plus, he says he feels it’s condescending for people to go in and learn their two or three sentences that they whip out all the time.  Yeah all the local people will make nice and praise them for it, but are they really impressed or are they just being polite?  

I’d never thought of it that way–do people really find it insulting for outsiders to learn their language?  Maybe to mangle it poorly and make no effort to fix such blunderings, but do people really find it condescending when outsiders make the effort? 

I think what he was saying was that just knowing the language doesn’t automatically make you any kind of expert on the culture.  There is a special kind of arrogance about assuming the two are equivalent, and that I can understand.  I also understand that if all your professional conversations take place in English and most people who deal with foreigners–taxi drivers, waiters, dry cleaners–speak English, why bother? 

I also understand that for the most part, in a company of mixed language speakers it is quicker and more elegant to express ideas in English because on the professional front most native Arabic speakers speak English better than native English speakers speak Arabic. 

I can’t agree with his position, though, because all I kept thinking was, well, if you want to live in a place where everybody speaks English all the time and you don’t need to learn a new language to live there, why not just stay home? 

Of course diplomats have little choice in where they’re posted and if they had to learn all the languages for all the countries they visit, they may not have space left in their brains for the diplomacy part.  But there’s a big difference between going somewhere you don’t speak the language for a few days or weeks as a vacation and living there for months and years at a time.

One of the main objections to immigration in the US and the UK is the perception that people come in and create little enclaves of seperatism, little microstates bound by the language of their home countries and refusing to learn the language of the majority.  How is the Canadian commercial ambassador’s attitude any different than that?

Clearly English is the language of business the world over and it is in reality the language people use to get ahead economically.  I admit this is great for people like me, because I don’t need to stutter along in Arabic at my hotel, when I’m ordering dinner, or when I’m looking for various medications at the pharmacy.  But I certainly feel the hipocrisy of the attitude that it’s necessary to prove one’s ability in English in order to live and work in the US and the UK while insisting that when we go overseas to live and work, we do not need to know the languages of the countries hosting us. 

Just to add to the ambivalence about this whole thing, the Canandian ambassador was right in one respect: occasionally when I speak to an Egyptian in mangled Arabic, he or she will look pained and reply in English.  English, in addition to being a useful language for business, is also a marker of status.  Sometimes people who went to so much trouble to learn English do appear insulted by my stilted and juddering misuse of their language.  Not most of the time.  Most of the time people look surprised and pleased–maybe even amused–by my rudimentary attempts.  But sometimes. 

Oh well.  I guess you can’t please all the people all of the time, and I’m just grateful I can both give a Cairene taxi driver fairly detailed instructions on how to approach a particular destination and have long and interesting conversations with Canadians over pizza. 

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