On our final day in Florence – a Sunday, we decided to explore the portions of the city situated across the river and away from the main attractions. We meandered down the streets drawn by steeples in the distance. As we turned the corner, in the courtyard behind the Santo Spirito Church we found an amazing farmers market (Fierucola Market – 3rd Sunday of the month). Many of the stalls had stickers with that now famous snail supporting the Slow Food movement, and the foodstuffs we discovered were just amazing delicious. Unfortunately, the limits of our luggage and reluctance to deal with customs restrained us, but here’s a bit of what we discovered:
At one point we were peering over the shoulders of another shopper who asked for and paid for a sample of some luscious cheese. My husband thought to do the same, and dutifully placed a Euro coin on the table and said “I’ll have what he had” (in English). Along with the cheese sample, the food proprietor thought to share that he felt Americans were funny coming to a foreign country and not speaking a lick of Italian. He was absolutely right, and I’ve thought about this and some of the possible reasons and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Americans are funny this way, we launch ourselves to all corners of the earth, often with little linguistic research and even less cultural review, yet manage to succeed time and again, thanks to the patience of our hosts we end up having a grand time. Any confusion is often marked down as part of the experience, “I thought I was ordering scrambled eggs, and you should have seen what I got.” I know of no other country who’s denizens are so quick to wander with so little preparation. For some cultures, even seeing another major city within that country is considered a major achievement. On the one hand, I think it is pretty amazing that all these people put aside any reservations and think nothing of jumping on an airplane for sights unseen, lacking the basic communications skills for their new environment, unless you count a seemingly preternatural ability to pantomime. As to the citizens of the rest of the world, I am in awe of their patience.
So here’s some possible explanations for our lack of language skills:
the ability was lost with our ancestors
Lack of educational opportunities aside, many of us are reluctant to speak a foreign language. I took French for eight years and was fairly fluent, but my high school French teacher once informed me I had an accent that would kill a Frenchman (she subsequently informed me in a rather surprised voice that I was doing rather well in the verbal department) but it was too late as from that point on, I was hyperconscious of my French or any other language, and cringed at what it must sound like to a civilized ear. I tried switching to Italian in college, but they asked me if I was attempting Portuguese. Ever since then, I’ve been very reluctant to try my hand at any language, especially in the presence of linquistically gifted folks and because I also have no desire to leave death and destruction in my wake.
other cultures have us over a barrel
I was once in a tiny restaurant in Budapest and worked up the courage (see above) to ask for the check in Hungarian. The waitress looked at me a moment, and then responded in English with nary and accent “Oh, you want the bill?” that seemed to confirm my suspicions about language troubles and awe that other people did not have the same difficulty. I suspect part of the reason other countries are so much better at languages is that aside from teaching multiple languages in school, they are much more focused on exporting goods and services that we are in the United States, and being able to speak the language is a critical advantage. For many businesses, the customers are fellow Americans.
Another example involves my brother attempting to study German in Salzburg with little success as the locals, as soon as the recognized he was American, wanted a subject on which to practice their English.
I also think that many of us are lazy as the citizens of the world have graciously accommodated our lack of language skills. I was once with someone in the Czech Republic who said this would be a great place if they spoke English. What would that make it, Epcot Center?
Whatever our reason, we’re missing a lot by not speaking the language of the places we visit. Research has shown that language influences culture. It is fascinating how languages focus on word or descriptions of concepts or ideas that are important to a culture, and may even lack words to describe something you and I think is commonplace. Never mind a lack of basic communication skills, how else are we to understand the nuances that make us different and special.
With all that being said, I am grateful that the global citizens of this world have the patience to put up with us as we fling ourselves on airplanes and explore the nooks and crannies of your lives. I for one would feel bereft if I did not have the opportunity to learn more of other cultures and what makes them tick, even if I am often missing tools to facilitate the process. So at the end of 2010, here’s to global citizines, food and culture… patience and a sense of adventure. Here’s to an incredible 2011!