[lg policy] They Speak English Here, and Here, and Here

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Apr 27 10:23:26 EDT 2018

 They Speak English Here, and Here, and Here
[image: IMG_0790]

Tulips at Keukenhof Garden, The Netherlands

Last week was spring break here in France, and we took the occasion to
travel — to Normandy with friends, then off to Copenhagen and its Swedish
counterpart, Malmö, to visit a friend, and finally to Amsterdam and the
flower fields of south Holland, now in full bloom.

Generally speaking, I am an advocate of learning a bit of the local
language when you travel; and in default of mastering a tongue-twisting
idiom in a short period of time, I am an advocate of asking, “Do you speak
English?” before launching in. The circumstances of this trip have
challenged that position. French, for instance, used to be (literally) the
lingua franca of Europe, at least for the wealthy and educated classes.
Such is no longer the case, but there remain 28 countries outside France
that speak its language, and tourists frequently complain of French
haughtiness when it comes to accepting the reality that English is now the
most common international language. I’ve not found that to be the case.
Rather, it seems to me that the French like to be consulted when it comes
to speaking a language other than French on French soil, and I’m also aware
that many small shopkeepers and people in service industries did not imbibe
English with their mother’s milk. Our two days in Normandy bore out both
these opinions. Once we landed in Copenhagen, however, the linguistic
landscape changed.

Yes, there were moments in history when Swedish and Danish were spoken by
conquered peoples, and Dutch retains a foothold in Afrikaans and other
dialects around the world. But these folks learn at a very early age that
English holds sway. It’s not that our friend Andrea in Malmö, who is not
yet 30, speaks French, Italian, Spanish, Croatian, and English in addition
to Swedish. It’s also that she speaks American English (which, as far as I
can tell, has displaced British English in these countries) without a
detectable accent and without groping for words. It’s the vocabulary, after
all, that gives you away in the end. In French, for instance, I consider
myself fluent, but I got stuck the other day trying to tell someone I’d
strained a muscle because I had never had occasion to use the very common
word *hamstring* (*tendon* — a word, like many others in French, that gains
its specificity only via context).

Andrea may be particularly adept, but most of the Swedes, Danes, and now
Netherlanders whom we’ve met are not so much resigned to speaking English
as proud of their knack for it. When I ask, “Do you speak English?” I
mostly get a look somewhere between puzzled and offended before they
answer, “Of course.” Once or twice someone has said, “A little bit,”
meaning that they may have to substitute a Dutch word or two. Gradually,
then, the visitor stops asking. A receptionist at a hotel might say, “*Welkom
bij Oestsgeest,*” but when I respond with “We have a reservation for
Ferriss,” the switch flips and we’re thenceforth in English.

This habit can lead one into muddy waters. A quick-witted Belgian friend
visiting the U.S. once told me he felt handicapped because he couldn’t
crack good jokes in English. Last night, at a restaurant where everyone
seemed very friendly, my husband bid farewell to the couple seated next to
us with a mild joke about the weather. They stopped, frowned, apologized,
asked him to repeat what he had said. He had not detected that they were
Italian, not Dutch, and that the server had been communicating with them in
German. In any case, the joke fell flat, in part because we had grown too
accustomed to navigating in English.

There is a limit to the eagerness, or even the tolerance, of these northern
Europeans for the invasion of English in their countries. Another
restaurant neighbor, in Amsterdam, noted that the paucity of Dutch service
workers had led to many restaurant and bar servers being hired from
southern and eastern European countries like Italy and Croatia. “When they
are hired, they must speak English,” she said, “or they must learn it very
fast. But this is my country. My native language is Dutch. I do feel that I
ought to be able to order a meal in my own land and my own tongue and be
understood.” This same fear, quite bizarrely, infects Americans who fear
that English is under threat by Spanish and who mistake bilingual education
for a hostile takeover of their language. But let’s be clear. Though it’s
extremely unlikely that any of these well-established languages will
vanish, the Swedish, Danish, and Dutch people have know full well that few
new speakers will arise outside their borders. But English is both deeply
rooted and spreading those roots into linguistic territories both friendly
and hostile. Just drop in on a village in south Holland, and you’ll hear
what I mean.

Forwarded from  CHE Lingua Franca


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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