Wednesday, September 29, 2010

He Vuelto

I have returned. Actually, I returned, left, and then returned again. For those who aren’t currently stalking me and/or are honoring their restraining orders, I spent a considerable amount of time in Spain. Then, after an unexpected amount of work to do on the Never Ending Research Project of Doom (it lives up to its name), I took off again for fading-Midwestern-resort. It is all part of my mission to deliver my message of peace and love across patriarch’s world.

Being away from the bloggy has let me see what an important safety valve it can be for my gravitas. If I don’t vent it periodically it becomes really toxic. Eventually it leaks right into the ground water. I think a local fifth grade class might never have another happy thought for the remainder of the school year.

Let’s talk first about the (much more fabulous) trip to Spain first. My time in Spain happened to overlap with Michelle Obama’s time there as well. So this means that your First Lady and your queen were in Spain at the same time. Okay, I’ve been saving that joke for a long time.

I’ve mentioned previously that I was not raised in a bilingual household. My mother, being Irish American, spoke English during her childhood. My father’s parents, meanwhile, made the decision not to pass on Spanish to their children in the hopes that it would ease them into the mainstream U.S. There aren’t many things that I would argue about with my grandparents, but that is the big one (and my grandfather later expressed a good amount of regret about the idea). So, all this is to say that I am far, far, far, far, far from competent in Spanish and need to constantly take lessons just to maintain the basics. Thus, I thought, why not try classes in Spain for a change of pace? I heard that the language was popular there.

I can’t help but wonder why so many people in the United States are actively hostile to learning languages other than English. It’s not just that they see it as hard work (which it is), but they actually disdain the idea entirely. Not only that, many actually don’t want other people speaking different languages either. Perhaps this is some bizarre legacy of the British empire that the entire Anglophone world struggles to correct. Shortly before I left for my trip, I was out with some acquaintances when one of them noted that he wouldn’t want to travel anywhere that English wasn’t the main language. Gee, that only rules out 91 percent of the world where people grow up speaking a language other than English at home. Why do some Americans see such a parochial outlook as “okay?” Or recognize that it only limits their own options?

If many U.S. nationals disdain learning languages, they aren’t receiving much encouragement from their universities to change their mind. Languages and Literatures department are often some of the least funded units on campus and carry a radically heavy load of non-tenure-track instructors (who are paid next-to-nothing for their services). Many universities (including my own alma matter) even allow students to “opt out” of learning a foreign language by substituting something else instead (like computer programming). It pains me that one of the Ph.D. programs that I am involved with at Big Midwestern University currently has zero (0) language requirements for students studying the U.S. Apparently this nation maintains the fiction that it has never had populations who spoke Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, Italian, Russian, German, Dutch...

Many Americans, as a result, just don’t want to even try to learn another language. Even while I was in Spain, a fellow student from the United States quite bizarrely refused to speak Spanish when outside of class. It’s easy to criticize (fun too), but why would you travel thousands of miles to work on a language that you only would use in academic settings?

This isn’t to say that I find working in languages other than English easy. Trust me – It is more than humbling to go from debating the finer points of enlightenment philosophy in your native language to discussing whether the ball is blue or orange in a new language. Plus, I have always had a lot of phobia about Spanish given that many people expect me to speak the language well (which I don’t). Taunts from my youth still haunt me. Nonetheless, to me it is almost as if I am performing a feat of magic when I communicate in another language. I say what I want and people actually respond! Magic!

Europe (except the UK) really seems to have much better attitudes about language learning than the U.S. Almost every person in my class who was from Europe learned Spanish as a third language. Given we border a Spanish-speaking country and a half a French-speaking country, it is really inexcusable that mastering another language isn’t taken as a serious intellectual challenge in the U.S.

This isn’t to say everything in Europe is perfect, of course. No matter where you go in the world, people of color are disproportionately stuck doing the shitty jobs. Spain certainly didn’t differ in that way. Likewise, Spain is in the thralls of heated anti-immigrant hysteria not terribly different than the U.S. and France. Every person I encountered was as frustrated with their government as most people in the U.S. are with our own.

It also seems to me that Bob Barker has apparently never visited Spain for every dog I saw on the streets had clearly not been neutered to help control the unwanted pet population. I hadn’t seen that many balls swinging in the breeze since I stumbled into that Toronto bathhouse. What? This isn’t a family blog.

Despite its many problems, though, the ordinary people on the street just didn’t feel as stressed out and angry as people in the U.S. appear these days. Perhaps it was my experience in Spain that made my second trip to fading-Midwestern-resort feel all the more jarring. A gentleman caller of mine happened to win an all expense paid weekend at Gargantuan Hotel and invited me to join him. To be honest, such vacations aren’t usually my ideal. Much of the appeal of fading-Midwestern-resort is its location in a quaint Midwestern town. Since I already live in a quaint Midwestern town, this seemed less of a selling point to me. I prefer urban destinations (Chicago, Philadelphia, my beloved Boston, etc) or to return to Paradise Island.

Fading-Midwestern-resort is also a place that is clearly shunned by the gays and minorities, probably because the rich, white, straight people who normally vacation there clearly don’t want them around. Why would gays vacation in cities where they don't have equal rights? Why subsidize a hateful economy with our hard earned cash? At the very least, I want any vacation to have at least one functioning gay bar. It is a sign of civilization and its absence made fading-Midwestern-resort feel even more archaic. Gentleman-caller convinced me nonetheless because, even though there weren’t any gay bars, the winning expense allotment would more than generously provide for a number of Manhattan Cocktails. In the end, maybe that’s all I really need.

What struck me about the two trips being so close together is the clear level of white, entitled anger that permeated fading-Midwestern-resort. The vacationing people on the island were a) clearly quite well off financially and b) supposed to be enjoying a leisurely holiday. Nonetheless, it seemed like every time I turned around all I heard was people obsessing about how they thought Obama had done them wrong and how this country was “on the road to socialism.” They were also numerous, numerous anti-immigrant statements. This occurred despite the fact that the very resort that was catering to them at that very moment clearly depended on immigrant labor. It was astounding to me that an entire island’s worth of people who are so fortunate (especially in a region with the highest unemployment) could continue to demand more and more of the pie. They have everything that they could possibly want and yet it simply wasn’t enough. Much to my horror, they also managed to say that every African-American waiter who served them “looked like Obama.” I find it unlikely that I will ever return to fading-Midwestern-resort.

It did make me wonder, though, if the lack of desire to learn another language is a symptom of the same problem that now plagues our political discussions. Are so many people in the U.S. simply unwilling to learn another point of view or perspective?


Roger Owen Green said...

I'm convinced thatb it is a distortion of the notion of "American exceptionalism". The positive spin of it is our "can-do" attitude; the negative is that the rest of the world should be more like us (speak English) and that we just cannot be like them (metric system).

Mel said...

La putada de anglocentrismo!

I'm taking a online class in public health leadership this semester and we were just discussing cultural competency. One of the other people in my small group is conservative and stated her opinion that people who "come here" should speak English. I still haven't responded to that, because I'm not quite sure how to go about it without being at least perceived as confrontational (part of the grade is based on peer evaluations, so....).

We've seen the same thing with language here in Maine. Most of our long-standing francophone population was concentrated in the northern part of the state, with an early 20th century influx into the central part of the state of quebecois coming to work in the now-defunct factories. I know people here who couldn't communicate with their grandparents because of the language gap, and one of my best friend's (whom GayProf actually resembles, IMO)parents were beaten in school if they were caught speaking their native language, to the extent that they simply wouldn't speak French to their children at all.

pacalaga said...

I've never understood it. Or the complaint about having to know another language to get a job. Cuz more skills are a bad thing? Oy.
Anyway, Spain sounds lovely.

tornwordo said...

Wasn't Spain the awesomest? And I didn't know my family was vacationing in the midwest, because you got them nailed. I'm so glad to live on this side of the border.

Mark My Words said...

Here in Quebec, where we have been fighting over the use of English and French for as long as I can remember, a stubborn insistence on using one language, and refusal to use another, can be as political a gesture as voting. In recent years however, bilingualism amongst both native francophones and anglophones has increased, mostly because at some point, everybody, not so much discovered, but rather finally accepted, that there are strong economic advantages to learning a second language, i.e., it became “incontournable.”

Susan said...

Welcome back! I've never understood the language thing. I think it's less exceptionalism than seeing us as not needing it. Where people get that idea, I don't know; where I live bilingualism is a positive advantage.

GayProf said...

ROG: It seems peculiar that the "can do" attitude never translates to "can learn a new language." Sigh. And what is up with our obsession with keeping metric out?

Mel: What I think is interesting about the "if they come here they should speak English" argument (and I am setting aside the reality that English has never been the exclusive language of the U.S.) is that Americans don't feel the same obligation to learn the languages of countries that they visit. So quite often they have the bizarre attitude that people should learn English when the come here and speak English when we go there.

Pacalaga: I know, right? More languages often means more opportunities. Silly, silly. But Spain was more than lovely.

Mark: Quebec is an interesting case. It has been a hard road for Canada, but perhaps people are finally coming to the realization that multiple languages serves them well.

Susan: Maybe U.S. nationalism is so fragile that some people feel that enforcing conformity is the only way to maintain it? Or perhaps since so many people in the world do learn English as a second language (for business purposes) Americans are rarely challenged to know others?

FrauTech said...

Great points. That's why I love taking a language class locally. True many are just meeting minimum GE requirements, but many others are getting ready for a trip abroad (and want to actually understand/speak a little) and many others like myself just wanted to add another language to their list.

susurro said...

welcome back from your vacays! I'm guessing it was much harder to learn Spanish in Spain since it isn't the Spanish we hear all day long in the U.S. whenever I come back from Spain my Latin@ and Latin American friends make fun of my "spitty accent' it seems there are several layers of colonial relationships to language going on in the U.S.

La pelota es ...

Blake said...

Welcome Back, GayProf! I believe I may be a graduate of said program that requires zero knowledge of other languages, though as a native of said half-French country to the North, I also speak le Francais un petit peu.

The thing I find so astounding about people unwilling to travel to places where English is not the first language is that it is so impressive (both good and bad) the degree to which people in most nations I've traveled all have such a good grasp of English anyway, not only because they are better educated than we are, but precisely because they encounter so many American tourists who speak nothing but English. Ignorant Americans shouldn't be afraid of foreign lands! They're ready for us!

Emily Shorette said...


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Frank said...

Welcome back, GayProf! I was getting worried, frankly, my Strong Amazon Sister. I was about to email you to make sure that the forces of Man's World hadn't overcome you.

I think Roger has a point about "American Exceptionalism," but I also think you hit on something else: a legacy of the British imperialism. The entire Anglophone sphere seems more resistant to multilingualism than other areas of the world. The English have always been notorious for expecting the wogs to speak to them in a "civilized" tongue, and even when they try to speak, say, French, being terribly atrocious. I recall a line from Gigi: "Well, I suppose we must [learn English]. They simply REFUSE to learn French!"

Historiann said...

Welcome back. I am enjoying your travels abroad and your luxurious research leave time vicariously.

I am, however, very sorry to hear about what a bunch of a$$hats populate M@ckin@c() I$l@nd. IIRC, it was a popular golfing resort for President Taft, so its glory days are well behind it, perhaps much like the WASPy whiners you report on here.

Seriously: more reporting on what it's like to be on leave and able to take vacations and trips in the autumn, winter, and spring. Please!

GayProf said...

FrauTech: It would be great if more people thought like you do. Have some extra time? Why not try a new language?

Susurro: As you know, there are some vocabulary differences between the Americas and Spain. It did bother me a bit that several people in Spain dismissed those differences as being antiquated (and you can guess which side of the Atlantic was out of time). Colonialism dies a long, long death.

Blake: That's so true. Indeed, it can be challenging to learn Spanish in Spain because so many people can simply switch to English. So, why don't Americans travel more?

Emily: I'll take a look.

Frank: It does seem to pervade most of the Anglophone world. Somebody must have written about this previously.

Historiann: Leave is pretty darn good. I can't believe a month of it has already disappeared.

John Gorenfeld said...

Could this be you?

"We have a fan who keeps changing this make Wonder Woman sound like the most badass character in the DCU."

GayProf said...

John: It all depends -- If it is me (and I'm not confirming or denying that it is), will it increase the chances of DC consulting me on the direction of the book?

Earl Cootie said...

I've always thought that computer programming was much akin to learning a foreign language, and that someone with an aptness for learning other languages would excel at computer programming (and vice versa). Someday I will test this theory. (No, really.)

villa begur said...

The knowledge of the foreign language is not so must.It depends on the person thinking is it good to learn about the other language or not.If person want he will if not than its also ok.