Every Wednesday, I go to a friend’s house to spend a few hours practicing my French with a group of Francophiles, like me. My friend is a fluent French speaker. She and her husband have spent several months at a time in France over the past few years enjoying a more intimate and concentrated experience—something we hope to do at some point in the not-too-distant future. I have worked at learning French for many years—sometimes in formal classes, but more often with tapes, CDs, conversation groups, and watching French t.v., which we enjoy as an extra part of our cable package. I am increasingly more comfortable when traveling in France.
The world becomes smaller through our increasingly efficient interconnectedness. At the same time, our position in the world becomes smaller as other countries catch up technologically and economically. In the last few months, we have witnessed crises in several countries in northern Africa and most recently, a virtual apocalypse in Japan. Though less dramatic than these but equally as important are the European Union, which convenes in French- and Flemish-speaking Belgium; China as a formidable economic powerhouse; Germany hanging on to its reputation as a strong first-world leader; French-speaking Africa prominently featured in the news; and South America sharing its riches through wine production, tourism, and exports all over the world. In the meantime, Americans continue to turn a blind eye to the importance of learning a foreign language.
When in the U.S., we expect visitors to attempt English and lose patience quickly when they are not proficient. Conversely, any attempt to speak the language in another country is met with humor, enthusiasm, helpfulness, and a welcome. Speaking English more loudly based on the premise that volume means comprehension is lost on host countries. And yet the notion persists. Even as far away as a restaurant in Porto Alegre, Brazil, I met a couple heading home to the U.S. after a two-year tour in Brazil where he worked for a U.S. company. They asked if I could help them order a meal. I was dumbstruck to think that they had been there for two years without even trying to learn the most basic Portuguese.
Are we ready for this ever-shrinking globe? When your language-learning efforts languish, consider this: It isn’t waiting for us to catch up!