“Eh, pardonez-moi monsieur, mais ou est le gare centrale?”
“You speak English?”
Damn. Not again. “Yes, we are looking for … ” The rest of this exchange doesn’t particularly matter. For about three weeks my roommate and I have been trying to learn the ropes of living and studying abroad. While participating in the auspicious Miami University Dolibois European Center (MUDEC) program in Luxembourg, we have discovered a couple of important facts. One: if you want to go shopping, don’t even bother leaving the house Sunday, everything is closed. Two: a kebab is actually a gyro and has more calories than a Big Mac, chocolate shake and large fry combined. Three: as Americans, our language skills are abominable.
Almost every time I have tried to use my French, I have been rebuffed and addressed in my native tongue. Upon arrival here, our host mom spoke to us in English, despite our repeated attempts to communicate in French, an act that would foreshadow most conversations to be had with locals. We met our host sister later that afternoon who, at 6 years old, already speaks Luxembourgish quite well and started her German lessons this past fall. It is more than a little humbling to play card games with a first grader who is teaching you numbers in two different languages. Granted, Luxembourg is a particular case for European linguistic abilities as most Luxembourgers speak Luxembourgish, German, French and English. However, a quick trip to Bruges informed me the Belgians speak English just fine. Last week while chatting with a very cute train worker, I discovered it isn’t uncommon to speak above this amount, as I learned he spoke Luxembourgish, Portuguese, Italian, French, German and English. Though English was his “worst language,” he still communicated with an ease foreign to Miami students even in some 300-level language courses.
Though I feel mostly shame and occasionally irrational frustration at this situation (at my lack of language ability, not European prowess in this field), I don’t entirely blame myself as an idiot when it comes to my French. I have spoken to some people who said they could not tell I was American until I spoke for a while and then had trouble remembering some words. So basically, when I’m ordering that pain au chocolat and un petit café au lait and can pay without tripping over my numbers, then I’m like a native. When, however, I try to have a decent conversation with a European, my accent and vocabulary always give me away. I have studied French for six years now, am working on a French minor and yet am still inadequate? Now it’s time to lay some blame, and I’m heading for the American education system.
In Luxembourg, children learn their Luxembourgish at home. Starting at age six, or roughly first grade, they begin learning German. The following year they begin learning French while continuing to study German and speak in Luxembourgish. By roughly late middle school they start with English. In high school they choose what other language they wish to specialize in. The result? An entire country with communication skills any international businessman, government worker or even traveler would envy. In the U.S., almost all of us start our language classes our first year of high school. The result? An entire country of monolingual people completely unable to function overseas. For our government, that means heavy reliance upon translators or more likely lazily hoping the other person speaks English among the seven other languages in which he or she is fluent.
It is proven fact that after age 18 it becomes significantly more challenging to fluently learn another language. By starting at six, these Europeans are keeping on track. By starting at 14, we Americans are basically out of luck. Though many argue Americans don’t need to speak a multitude of languages because everyone speaks English, I would reply: ignorance can only get you so far. Spanish is an invaluable asset for those living in the Southwest, but it’s not the only language Americans can benefit from learning. In a globalized world kids need to start learning Chinese, Arabic, Spanish or even Latin. The American education system can only benefit from taking a leaf or several out of Luxembourg’s language book and start the classes in first grade, not freshman year. Perhaps one day that old joke will finally stop circulating – the one that goes “What do you call a person that speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person that speaks one language? American.”