life · travel

Fremdsprachen

English translation: foreign languages

Our translation: uuuuuuhh….Do you speak English?

America is a big country – like a really big country. I’m proud to say that I’ve visited over half of the states, seen some of the national parks, been to the capitol, etc., but there are several cities and places that I’ve never seen. I’ve never been to New York City, despite the fact that a close friend has lived there since 2008, and I’ve never been to the West Coast, even though I have family and friends in Seattle. I’ve always wanted to see the Southwestern desert in all its colorful glory and the otherworldly terrain of the Badlands. But I haven’t. Mostly because the United States is really big and therefore expensive to travel around in.

The size of the States and my lack of touristic activities there has been on my mind quite a bit lately for two reasons:

  1. So many people that I’ve met here seem to have seen more of the U.S. than I have.
  2. The U.S. is so big, you don’t have to learn another language.

Before going any further, I feel that I must warn you that I’m about to make some wild generalizations. So now that you’ve been warned…

The first reason is pretty self-explanatory. Europeans can and love to travel. It helps that most, if not all, European countries have governmentally enforced vacation days for all employees – which is definitely not the case for the United States. I talked a little bit about Germany and its vacation days in my “Urlaub” post, so I won’t go into any more detail about that here.

It also helps that traveling to other countries, especially in Europe, is quick and economical. The travel time from Cologne to Paris is between 3 and 4 hours by train, only 3 hours on a train from here to Amsterdam, a 2-hour flight to Rome, etc., all for under or around 100€! Those who can will often take a long weekend and go see a new city or their favorite one, but they also travel outside of the EU too. A family we know took a vacation to Egypt in the last few years, another friend takes a trip to Asia every year or so, and on the plane ride over here we sat next to a Danish family returning home after backpacking in the Adirondacks! I’ve never even been to New York!

Matt and I are constantly amazed by how much of the world our new friends have seen. So many different factors go into traveling of course – desire, ability, finances, time, etc., but, based on very generalized observations, one thing seems to stand out to me as the major difference between Americans and Europeans and their views toward traveling: languages. Europeans learn them, Americans don’t, or at least not on the same scale.

Why? Like I said before, the U.S. is HUGE – about 9.8 million km2 or 3.8 million mi2. To put it in perspective, here’s a picture of Texas superimposed onto Europe:

When I was in school in the heart of Kansas, about as far from any other country as you can get in the U.S., taking a foreign language became an option in the 8th grade, either German or Spanish. In that little town, very few people chose taking a foreign language over other electives. Why? Well, why would they need to? You can drive for a day in any direction, still be in the U.S., and still speak English.

But as travel becomes quicker and the world becomes smaller and more interconnected, opportunities shift overseas *cough – postdoc in Germany – cough*, and speaking only one language may become a hindrance rather than a help. Speaking a foreign language in addition to the career you’ve chosen has become more and more valuable, and it’s important that Americans don’t get behind linguistically. For whatever reason, foreign languages are the black sheep of class electives. Whether because students don’t see a reason as to why they have to or should learn another language or because there’s a sense that learning another one is impossible, I’m not sure, but the research shows that learning a foreign language good for your brain as well as your resume!

But the best reason to learn a foreign language?

Because the world is amazing, and you should see it. Learn some French and go see Paris. Take an Italian course and go visit Venice. It’s ok too if you aren’t fluent, it’s ok if you don’t even know how to say hello. Don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot sometimes when you can’t quite communicate, because most of the world is experienced in speaking a second, third, maybe fourth language to get a point across or ask for directions. But the best words to learn before going to a new place? Please and thank you. Those two little words will make you welcome anywhere.

(This post is dedicated to my inspiring mother who is leaving the States on Thursday to trek the Camino de Santiago in Spain. So proud of her courage in embarking on this physically exhausting yet spiritually uplifting journey. Love you, mom.)

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