This column appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian 21 years ago, on 31 January 2000.
Loud, obnoxious – and decidedly American
All I could think was that I’ll never be able to open my mouth in this class again. He was ruining it for me, ruining everything with his grating tone, his blatant rudeness, the patronizing way he kept interrupting other students to correct their opinions
If only he was German or French or Dutch or Spanish, I would have been all right. But he was American. Loud, overbearing, inconsiderate, arrogant and undeniably American.
As much as I wanted to light into him, my tongue was tied by the sudden awareness that my voice and accent would betray me in an instant. It wouldn’t matter what I said, my accent would stamp me just as quickly as his had identified him — and equate us beyond my power of control.
Until that mortifying hour in my critical theory class, surrounded by British students who were —justifiably — looking daggers at this specimen of Americana, I hadn’t realized to what extent language shapes and projects our identity.
It was the first time I had ever been afraid to speak because of how I would be branded by my accent and diction.
The worst of it, though, was the fact that my boorish fellow student could not have been French or German or Korean, or anything but a citizen of the dear old U.S. of A., for the simple reason that no other nation so assiduously fosters such linguistic arrogance.
Whatever his name was, the plaid-shirted Washington, D.C., boy was merely projecting a particularly noxious version of the snobbery of Americans toward anyone who doesn’t speak our language. (Granted, Brits and Americans ostensibly share a language, but the differences in manner and expression are so fundamental as to constitute British and American as two separate entities.)
It is a condescension that is manifested in American language education — or should I say the lack thereof. Some young people are fortunate enough to attend high schools that provide the opportunity to seriously study another language, but more often than not, language courses are viewed as something of a joke.
My own high school experience was with Spanish, a lovely and eminently useful language. However, for all the benefits I would have accrued by actually developing a proficiency in it, I was never given much in the way of an occasion or encouragement to do so.
Spanish class was a haphazard affair, a conglomeration of worksheets, flash cards, pop quizzes and lots of goofing off. In my second year, due to lack of funds and interest, it was taught on a semi-volunteer basis by an assortment of half-a-dozen people, some of whom spoke less Spanish than I did (which is saying something indeed). After muddling along with A grades for two years, I moved on to other subjects and was never given reason to use Spanish again.
However, the language problem is a more general one, beyond my own school or secondary education in general. I remember reading over a college application form from the University of Oregon where “foreign language” was merely a suggestion, not even a prerequisite, for study at the university level.
Frighteningly, we’re used to it. No one ever makes a big deal of it—not politicians and not educators, and I imagine parents only rarely. We are conditioned from an early age to regard learning another language as something that may be done, but is never in any way vital.
Sure, it’ll help you get into a better university, but not much else. Or if you wish to go into business, or international law, it might be useful to acquire another language. But the idea that it is a crucial part of educational and social development to partake of another culture through language study simply does not seem to exist in the States.
Hence the arrogance, hence the rudeness, hence the all-too-often-true stereotype of Americans as loud-mouthed, know-it-all morons. Because, you see, we are never forced to identify with another group through the intimate process of acquiring their mode of speech.
“Why should we?,” the argument goes. Everyone speaks English anyway, so why should we learn Spanish or French or what have you? We don’t need to.
We do need to. Not for the sake of mere communication, though.
Learning another language is not about knowing how to ask for directions or tell time or find the loo or order a meal, it is about understanding how to truly identify with someone else. It is about entering into their life through the medium with which we shape our lives – language.
Cila Warncke is a junior English major from Portland, Ore. She is studying abroad in London this semester. Bigmouth Strikes Again appears on Mondays.