Learning languages (or not).

Last night I watched the movie L’Auberge Espagnole. I’m not going to review the movie as there was a lot going on with it. I’m also not going to focus on the plot and how that affects me in life. What I want to focus on here is that there were a lot of languages used throughout the movie, with different characters using them interchangeably. I was watching the version with English subtitles, which made no distinction between which language was being translated. You just had to follow along with which character was speaking and assume that they were speaking their language at times. That is, of course, you knew what their language was even if you didn’t know every word. I get the feeling that a European would be better with this latter technique than I would as an American.

The man character himself, a French student, had to move to Spain in order to learn Spanish. He shares an apartment with several other students from across Europe who spoke their own languages as well as some Spanish and English. English seemed to be the language of choice when talking as a group, although sometimes Spanish was used as well, especially by the end of the film. I remember hearing somewhere that in Europe since World War II English has become more or less a universal language. Yet many people speak more than one language. I remember when I stayed in a bed and breakfast in Norway a few years ago the place was owned by a couple. He was Norwegian, she was Swiss. When they spoke to each other they spoke in German. When they spoke to use they spoke in English. They were speaking to a Norwegian guest in Norwegian at one point. Later in the week a French couple stayed there, and we were all speaking English around the breakfast table. I felt inadequate only knowing the one language.

I’ve tried learning other languages but I never could get my head around it. I took Spanish in high school because I had to but didn’t do so well. Considering I live in Maine I probably should have taken French but Spanish seemed easier to learn. I also tried learning Esperanto at one point but only got as far as learning how to count before I gave up. I think the book I was reading was partly to blame but once I came to the conclusion that I would never use it I didn’t bother getting help elsewhere. As I said, English has become a more universal language anyway.

We already have websites that can translate foreign* websites so we can navigate more freely and widely across the web. Maybe it won’t be too long that we’ll have the universal translator used in “Star Trek” so we can talk to each other in person without having to learn the other person’s language. Would this be better? On one hand we can say that we can maintain our own language and travel through the world more freely. On the other we can say that we are losing out on learning another language. We’re losing the mental exercise that comes with learning something new. Then again, that means we can free up our brains for other information. If something like this happens we would have to be careful that we have the ability to go back to communicating to each other the way we do now in case the translators fail.

That is, of course, we don’t all have one worldwide language. Perhaps we’re moving closer to that as we move closer to a global culture in this information age. As for now, we should try to learn at least a few key phrases when visiting another country out of respect. I agree to some extent with the conservatives that say that people coming our country should learn the native language. Unfortunately a lot of the native languages died out years ago as we took over the land from those languages’ speakers.

*I used the term “foreign” for ease of use, but is anything really foreign when it’s all on the same Internet?

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