US Stays “Lost in Translation”

Guest Article:
By Ralph Strozza

InterPro Translation Solutions

I recall as if it were yesterday something that happened on a business trip to Germany about 10 years ago.

I was at a client’s site in Wiesbaden for a series of meetings, and they had set up a conference room as my office for the duration. It was late one day and everyone had gone home, but I still had a couple of hours of work to do since the home office in Chicago was 7 hours behind me.

I was on the phone with a colleague when a maintenance man walked in the room to change a light bulb or to repair something. I completed my call after which I mustered the courage to say “Guten Abend” in my best German accent (and hoping he would respond in kind and leave it at that since German is not one of the languages I speak). The man answered me with a pronounced German accent, but in perfectly understandable English: “Good evening and please excuse my intrusion. Someone reported that there was a problem with this room and I came to see what needed to be repaired”.

OK, I didn’t know this person at all. He could very well have had a college degree in linguistics, but I highly doubt it. He was dressed in coveralls, toting a toolbox and a ladder, and was clearly working in a maintenance or custodial capacity. What I kept thinking about over and over again and still think about to this day were 3 things:

  1. In Germany, someone who had what I assumed to be no more than a high school education would be capable of saying what he said to me in English;
  2. The chances of this scene taking place in the U.S. would be very slim to none;
  3. And knowing that I was American, the man assumed that I didn’t speak German and that if he wanted me to understand him, that he would need to speak to me in English.

This experience simply left me awestruck and still fosters hope for what we could achieve here in the U.S. if we realize how important languages are to us and we take action to do something about it.

Stories about “ugly Americans” are legion, and justifiably so. We have historically made little to no effort to understand foreign countries, foreign cultures, and foreign languages. Visions of an American woman in Paris yelling (in English, of course) at a department store clerk for refusing to accept American currency come to mind. The stereotype of the arrogant, ignorant American tourist flourished in the 1950s when a strong economy and a strong dollar made a trip to post-World War II Europe a “bargain” to countless Americans. Over 50 years later do we still deserve this ugly reputation?

(Just so the reader knows where I stand on the issue: I was raised in a home where both English and Italian were spoken, thanks to my grandfather and his brother who lived with us while I grew up. So when I become President, everyone who hopes to graduate from a U.S. high school will need to prove basic proficiency in 1) English and 2) at least one language other than English.)

Despite my pro-language stance, let me concede that there have been reasons why, historically, we have been a one-language nation with an aversion to learning additional languages. Part of the answer can be found in examining what makes the average European look like the antithesis of the monolingual American.

Due to the general size, number, and proximity of European countries to one another, added to which almost each country has its own distinct language, there has always been a need –and out of this need grew — the tradition of learning foreign languages in Europe that simply did not exist in the U.S. Let’s take an example: according to Mapquest, you can drive the 178 miles from Dutch-speaking Amsterdam, Holland to German-speaking Bonn, Germany in 2 hours and 45 minutes. Driving from English-speaking Seattle, Washington, to French-speaking Montreal, Canada, however, would involve a trip of 2,949 miles, or almost 44 hours of driving. To get something roughly similar in terms of distance and driving time in Europe, you would have to travel from the north of Sweden to the southern coast of Spain. On this trip, you would go through Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France and Spain — 5 countries with 5 distinct languages.

In The Netherlands, approximately 85% of the total population has basic knowledge of English, 55%-60% of German, and 25% of French. Statistics for the entire European Union (EU) reinforce the multilinguistic tendencies to be Europe-wide:

  • 45% of EU citizens can take part in a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue.
  • In Luxembourg, nearly everyone can do this.
  • In the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden more than 8 in 10 can do this.
  • The proportion of EU citizens who can speak English well enough to hold a conversation continues to rise.

The statistics in the U.S. look much different, albeit with an encouraging trend from the past 27 years. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau collected data about languages other than English spoken in the U.S. Of the 262.4 million people over the age of five, 47 million (18 percent) reported speaking a language other than English at home. Although a large percentage of this increase must be attributed to the rise in immigration to the U.S., it is encouraging that this represents an increase over the 31.8 million (14 percent) who reported speaking another language at home in the 1990 census, and a further increase over the 23.1 million (11 percent) reported in the 1980 census. Figures from 2000 show that the absolute number of people speaking other languages in the home has doubled since that time.

What’s more, since English has become the world’s undisputed lingua franca as well as the universal language of the business world, there is less of a perceived need for American businessmen to learn a foreign language. Just maybe there was need for the dominance of one language in order to navigate the globalized economy in which we now live, and English became that medium due to a combination of the strength of the U.S. economy, our lone superpower status (militarily), the endurance of our political system, etc… the list can continue.

Despite this, the fact that our language is the foreign language most spoken by non-native speakers of English should not diminish the absolute need for us to learn foreign tongues nor its importance to our standing as a world leader. It is insulting to me personally that the world just assumes we are either too lazy, too arrogant, or intellectually incapable of understanding a foreign language, of not being able to name a country’s head of government, or of knowing the basic geographical layout of their country. (Maybe I’m being too hard on us as far as geography is concerned: my partner who lives in California has told me horror stories of how most of the high school students that he has interacted with couldn’t point out San Diego on a map of the state).

Reasons abound and excuses can always be found to explain our English-only mindset, but Americans need to realize that in order to be competitive and respected in our global economy, we need to shed this single-language baggage we have been carrying around far too long. The point must be driven home with those who influence elementary and secondary level education, because this is where it will need to take root. In Spain, the study of a foreign language is compulsory from age 8, or what would be the third grade level in the U.S. By the time a student finishes high school, he/she would have invested approximately ten years toward the study of a different language (and with it, different cultures — a side benefit). A similarly structured curriculum here would go a long way toward helping us achieve our goal.

Because of my cultural heritage, I have always admired and respected those who could understand, speak, read and write in a foreign language. As an American, I want to see my country prosper economically, and to be respected and admired for making valuable contributions to the world we live in. I firmly believe that making a serious effort toward speaking the language of those we need to communicate with will go a long way toward achieving this.

About the Author
Ralph Strozza is Co-Founder, President and CEO of InterPro Translation Solutions, which provides world-class web and software localization, help and documentation translation, multilingual desktop publishing, and project management solutions enabling clients to deliver their products and message to global audiences. Ralph can be reached at 630.873.3041 or rstrozza@interproinc.com.

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Author: John Yunker

John co-founded Byte Level Research in 2000 and is author of The Web Globalization Report Card. He also co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.