Like far too many North Americans, I remain unilingual. I understand French well enough that when I met the exiled King of Ruanda and his aide-de-camp (which is a long story in itself), I could understand about eighty percent of the conversation, but I couldn’t participate in it. Otherwise, I can read a reasonable amount of Anglo-Saxon (which will come in useful if I ever travel in Frisia.), and even less Latin – and that’s it. In other words, compared to the average continental European, my linguistic education is pitifully inadequate.
The reasons for this common ignorance is obvious. For several centuries, one of the dominant powers in the world (if not the dominant power) has been English-speaking. Even now, with the United Kingdom reduced to a second-rate power and the United States possibly tottering, English remains the language of trade and the Internet. You can tell this because, while you often read people apologizing for their lack of English skills, you hardly ever see English-speakers apologize for their lack of another language. The best you can say is that these days we at least have keyboard locales with a decent array of accents, so that we can spell the names of many non-English speakers correctly.
Just as importantly, with the exception of Quebec and possibly a few Inuit villages around the Arctic Circle, once north of Mexico, you can travel for thousands of miles without knowing anything except English. Even in ethnic enclaves, you have a strong chance of finding someone who speaks English. The result is the most North Americans feel little need to learn a second language, much less a third. By contrast, you have a greater incentive in many countries in Europe, where you are unable to travel more than a few hundred miles without finding another language useful.
Still another reason for the ignorance of people like me is that, given the language instruction we did receive, we would have been better off memorizing a tourist’s phrase book. I was in school before French immersion began, and forty minutes a couple of times a week – or fifty-five in high school – is not enough to learn any language, even if you have competent teachers – and I, for one, rarely did.
My first French classes consisted largely of playing bingo with the numbers from 1 to 50. Similarly, in high school, my French teacher for two years could always be distracted by asking her about her travels in France. I never did figure out if she had gone there several times, or just the once, but it didn’t really make a difference; ask her about Mont St. Michel or omlettes, and the members of the class could lean back and relax, confident that no other word of French would pass their lips for the rest of the lesson. As for my French teacher in my last year of high school, she was so dully stolid that I earned the only C+ of my school career while staring out the window of her class room.
I did have one native speaker who taught French. But he was my elementary school’s science teacher, and while his French lessons were dutiful, they were not inspired. His heart was not in it.
The combination of such teaching with a lack of any chance to practice meant that most of us had no clear concept of what another language might actually mean. If pressed, most of us probably would have said that it was like a cipher that mapped one to one with English words; if the structure wasn’t the same, it would always come out a match by the end of the sentence. As for idioms and dialects, they were not even concepts. The handful of us who knew better – one girl who was my main competitor for high grades, and another on whom I had a crush once or twice – were seen as having almost mystical powers because they could actually speak French, and not just recite memorized phrases from the textbook.
I could, of course, have cured my ignorance as an adult. In fact, a wish not to be so limited was the reason why I learned the little Anglo-Saxon and Latin that I know. Together with a small knowledge of linguistic sound changes, they remain enough for me to sometimes puzzle out German and to see cognates in the Romance languages or Middle English, but it seems indicative of my failure to understand the usefulness of languages that I never tried to studied one that might have a daily usefulness.
I wanted languages that would improve my understanding of English. Yes, that was the problem – I was too absorbed with learning English to make the effort to learn other languages. But that excuse sounds lacking even in my own ears.
The only mitigation I can plead is that I am aware of my defect. Unlike many North Americans (all right – unlike many Americans), I do not think that English is the default language, or that the Bible was written in English. I know that I am lacking this basic piece of education, so painfully so that I wince when I read 19th century novels that blithely mention school boys translating pages of Latin and Greek, or even Hebrew.
I know I should know better, and, maybe one day I will. Wasn’t it Queen Victoria who undertook to learn Hindu when she was in her eighties? If so, maybe there’s hope for me yet.