Checking my linguistic privilege

BERLIN–The past four days have reminded me how often being an American means never having to learn another language.

Departure sign in GermanI’m not proud of that fact, but when almost everybody you meet speaks English and does so well, you can get by with a knowledge of German that goes little further than “danke” and “bitte.”

That’s especially true at the IFA electronics trade show that has me here for the fourth year in a row (once again, with most of my travel costs covered by the show’s organizers). Veterans of the show tell me that IFA press conferences used to be conducted in German, but now everything runs in English. And not only are almost all of the labels on the exhibits here bilingual, most of those are English-first.

But earlier today, I was on a tour conducted entirely in German. I realized I was not quite as dumb in the language as I thought, in the sense of recognizing nouns and developing a sense of the other words around them from their context. If nothing else, that means my pattern-recognition skills haven’t completely atrophied.

It also reminded me of what it felt like when I began to learn French. It was frustrating to feel so lost at interpreting words made by other human beings–and yet I was fluent in the language by the end of college, with a certificate of proficiency to prove it. Sadly, a near-complete lack of practice since then has undone much of that learning. Maybe I should have taken Spanish instead, which I’d have plenty of opportunities to use around D.C.

I can’t undo those things, but I can at least try to knock some of the rust off my French or develop some marginal competency in Spanish. Any suggestions for a language-learning app to put on my phone or tablet?

(Meanwhile, my daughter has magically  progressed in five short years from baby babble to learning to read. This transformation is fascinating, and I’m not sure I could inventory what I’ve done to make that happen.)

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4 thoughts on “Checking my linguistic privilege

  1. Rob asks:
    Any suggestions for a language-learning app to put on my phone or tablet?

    The wife and I used Duolingo to learn (in her case) or brush up on (my 40-year-old high-school) French prior to a trip to Europe last year, and found it quite effective. Certainly worth a try since it’s free.

    While not an app, RadioLingua’s “Coffee Break” sessions are free, at least for a very sizable introductory series, and is good for drive time when you probably don’t want to be navigating a smartphone at the same time as your commute.

  2. I spent several years working with a Belgian company. While they conducted business in English, they generally spoke French and my years of Spanish were only tangentially useful. (It would have been nice to win Language Roulette but you and I both lost that one.) Yet strangely when we were together at a German conference, I was the group spokesman. (My German is no better than yours.) So there is something to be said for being functional in any Germanic or Romance language.

  3. Pingback: State of my French: less rusty than feared | Rob Pegoraro

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