Monday, February 6, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #5


The title of this installment was purposely sort of provocative, but I don't really mean it the way you might think.

A lot of hillbillies in this country like to spout off idiotic statements like, "youse in Amurka now: talk English!" Of course, Native Americans didn't speak English, nor did Amerigo Vespucci, after whom Europeans named this continent. I don't happen to subscribe to the Euro-centric "discovered America" myth, but Christopher Columbus spoke Italian and Spanish, which, ironically, is much of the time the very language the hillbillies are complaining about hearing.

Those of you for whom English is not your first language may encounter this opinion to some degree, but I doubt you will particularly often in New York. Where I live in Queens is possibly the most ethnically diverse area on the planet. There's a very funny (fake) Onion story in which various deities are trying to sort out the souls from a deadly bus accident in Queens. But even counting only my time in Manhattan, I literally hear five or six different languages every day. The point of all this is, don't worry. We're used to it. Any moderately sized destination like a hotel will have people on staff who speak one of the major world languages.

What I will often tell people--and just a day prior to this post told a wonderful family from Beijing who were self-conscious about their English abilities--is this: I don't speak Chinese. So however bad you think your English is, your English is still way better than my Chinese. Please don't be afraid to try at least the simple phrases. Only the most low-class piece of trash would ever laugh or act derisively to an honest attempt at an unfamiliar language. I'd be shocked to hear about a New Yorker ever doing that without being immediately fired for it. New York's expansive multiculturalism is one of the things many of us love most about living here.

Anyone from foreign lands who do encounter this should without question report it to that person's supervisor. It's unacceptable. But there are a few things to keep in mind along with my apologies. Any person who would do this is both ignorant and arrogant, a very irritating combination of traits. Likely he or she has never even been to a country where another language is spoken. If he or she has, I would be willing to bet they spoke English almost the entire time.

Another thing is that a lot of U.S. citizens can't speak English properly, either, much less any second language. The mangled grammar of my hillbilly quote above was intended to illustrate just that. I was once talking to a visitor who, if I remember correctly, was from Germany. After a bit of conversation, he said to me, "where are you from? Were you born here? Because I can understand everything you're saying." I laughed and informed him that my mother was an English teacher. I was no doubt privileged to have had that head-start, which I fully realize not everyone has had. And fluency is kind of what being a writer is all about, in the first place. What his comment says about the ability of many people here to articulate our own language is really not all that funny at all, however.

Especially if you speak a language that's common here--Spanish is the most obvious example--you can literally spend an entire lifetime in parts of New York and not ever have to speak one word of English (I know people who've done it). I need to recommend against it. I say this not because you don't have every right to communicate in any way that you're comfortable. But it would be, in my opinion, a sadly isolationist view of this place. I know it's less realistic for folks attempting English from languages like Arabic or Japanese, which are constructed completely differently. Finding this blog probably would be unlikely without at least a cursory understanding of English, anyway, or very good translation software. For everyone else, I do encourage you to try. As with the advice in the rest of this series, I believe your New York experience will be more true in some ways.

While I'm on this subject, I'd like to discuss something that will only really apply to native speakers of one of the Romance languages who happens to be reading this right now using an online translation. Everyone else is welcome to skip it. It's what I'd like to call the "English Ignorer." This person knows very little English aside from maybe a few important phrases like "please," thank you," "how much?" "where's the toilet?" and things like that. They have already decided in their mind before I've even begun speaking that they will not understand a single thing that comes out of my mouth.

Granted, I find this personally frustrating because I have made it one of the key goals in my work to be mostly understood by speakers of other languages. I greet groups of people who speak seven or eight different languages among them. Knowing any one of those languages would be infinitely less useful to me than speaking articulate English. 

I know enough about the various Romance languages to know what English words and types of words have equivalents in the others, in addition to things like proper nouns which don't change. I remain conscious of what types words are typically taught first to a person learning the basics of a foreign language (like letters and numbers). I'm aware that the tendency to slur the words of phrases together into one continuous verbal string tends to make following along more difficult (I pause briefly before and after important words to isolate them in the string). And finally, I use somewhat elaborate miming, pointing, and gesturing to make spacial references more clear and even describe physical actions. It's actually somewhat exhausting, but I take my job seriously. If someone were to speak to me this way in French, Spanish, Italian, or possibly German, I'm confident I would get the jist of what they were saying.

The English Ignorer is having none of it. They don't understand English, and that's that. So while I'm speaking, they're reading something in their own language, looking around as if I'm invisible, or worst of all, having a loud conversation with their travel companion while I'm trying to talk. It's sort of just bad manners, first off--to me, yes, but more importantly to the other people who are attempting to listen to what I'm saying. It's also quite self-defeating, even if I weren't going out of my way to be understood as clearly as possible (and certainly plenty of people don't speak their native English particularly well). This visitor is so busy concentrating on ignoring the sound of my voice and convincing themselves they don't understand a word of it that they're sure to miss every part of it that they could understand. Perhaps most unfortunate, if I were in a country where I would necessarily be addressed in a foreign language, and no one spoke English, I would see that as a great opportunity to at least try to pick up a little bit of it, an opportunity to learn.

I'm not suggesting everyone on the planet should understand English, just that acquiring skills in any foreign language is of benefit to us. Merely listening isn't going to kill anyone, and on the flipside, it might end up being more rewarding. The fact does remain that in our world economy, English is a useful language to know, every bit as much as, for instance, Arabic, Japanese, or Mandarin.

©2012, Ryan Witte

6. Get Lost!

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