Monday, December 31, 2007

Press 1

I will press “1” for English.

We love convenience. We want everything to make our lives easier.

When traveling to another country, the first problem we face is inconvenience. We don’t speak the language, we’re not used to the food, and even the money is unfamiliar. This problem is called culture shock.

The first reaction to culture shock is a rejection of the other culture. The person believes that his way of doing things is not only different but also better. This is a perfectly normal reaction.

However, what happens when we experience this inconvenience at home, in our own country? I believe this is what is happening now.

To have a conversation with “customer support” we have to press “1” to hear someone speak a modified version of our own language. Getting directions from the gas station clerk is no longer a reasonable option. In fact, speaking English and Spanish is often required to obtain minimum wage jobs in the South or urban areas of the North.

“Inconvenient” is an understatement. We are experiencing home culture shock.

And, our immediate reaction is to reject the other culture.

Is this the right response? Well, it is certainly the natural one. However, as we all know, the natural response is not always the correct response. When teaching others how to overcome culture shock, the primary advice is to accept their culture as different, but not inferior to your own.

While we are indeed experiencing culture shock, the element that affects, heck annoys, us the most is language. Thus, our natural response to anyone who doesn’t speak fluent English without a foreign accent is that they should “Learn the language.”

Let’s reason through this concept together. First, you must live in, not just visit, but live in a foreign country for at least a month before you can begin to understand the complexity of learning a foreign language fluently. It is one of the most difficult mental and social undertakings one could ever strive for. Therefore, “learning the language” is neither easily said nor done.

Secondly, if you will take a mental journey back to all the times you’ve ever heard that phrase, the “foreigner” was probably speaking English but with a heavy accent. (Notably, this is not always the case, but it is frequent enough.) Any good linguist will tell you that an accent is unavoidable and can never be trained away. In this case, the person has learned the language to the best of human ability, yet we are still unsatisfied because their accent is inconvenient for us.

Thirdly, for the person who has generally not learned English at all but lives in the U.S., must they “Learn the language”? Certainly most would agree with me that every person has the right to speak whatever language they want wherever they want. Even in areas with “official” languages, anyone can speak whatever language they want. However, we also understand that not every language can be understood everywhere.

So, a Spanish-speaking person in a Spanish-speaking area can go his whole life without “learning the language” if he doesn’t feel the necessity. But, when he enters an English-speaking area, the language barrier becomes inconvenient for both parties and both of them experience culture shock.

So, who should learn the language?

Whoever wants to!

To be continued . . .

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