Thursday, October 16, 2008

Lingua Franca

Last night there was a party in the international guest house where I am staying. It was a potluck, with everyone bringing a dish to sample, plus a great deal of wine. My new neighbors are a fascinating set. There is a doctor here for two months from Vietnam, to "learn new techniques" at a German hospital. A Spanish businessman who lives in France but spends three months of every year in Germany for his company. A young Russian doctoral candidate in physics who is spending a term at the Liebnitz Institute. An Israeli who teaches Jewish culture and history. A visiting Italian physicist at the Max Planck Institute. And, most startling of all, a Japanese linguist who is a world-class expert on a minor native Alaskan language.

I talked to all of these people, and more. The reason I could do this is that the entire party was conducted in English -- even though I was the only native English speaker present. Before this, I hadn't realized the extent to which English is now the accepted international language. The Vietnamese doctor, for instance, has no German and his colleagues no Vietnamese, but they managed with, he said, gestures and rudimentary English.

It was a fascinating party. And the food, from Italian zuppe through Vietnamese spring rolls to stewed cherries, was great -- and a welcome contrast to the simple meals I've been preparing for myself until I can convert my American recipes to European measurements.

6 comments:

Mike Flynn said...

I first noticed this in Sweden some years ago. I was in a meeting room working on a wall-sized flow chart when some engineers from the parent company in Germany arrived to meet with the Swedish production people. They conducted the entire meeting in English, since neither knew the other's language.

I also noticed English-language signage about town. This was not a tourist center by any means, but a Far North city called Ornskjoldsvik (sp? plus numerous umlauts)

The same was true in the classes I conducted for the UN nuclear inspectors in Vienna. They didn't just talk English with me, but with each other (with the obvious exceptions: Germans and Austrians; Spaniards and South Americans; etc.)

Brian Barker said...

Language barrier?

Perhaps there is an argument for Esperanto, after all

If you have time please check http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LV9XU

Orion said...

When I was in the Netherlands, the department where I was working switched its group meetings over to English for my benefit without even blinking.

I do speak Esperanto, and have never found it to be useful. It's a wonderful idea, but it lacks a critical mass of speakers.

Bill Chapman said...

Goodness me. It seems that speakers of both Esperanto and English have the best of both worlds!

Bill Chapman said...

I hope you'll allow me to add something. I've used Esperanto in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years.
Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I've made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there's the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. In the past year I have had guided tours of Berlin and Milan in the planned language. I have toured the rocky coast of Brittany discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I've discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

The crtical mass is there, and there are highly developed ways of contacting Esperanto speakers on your travels.

Brian Barker said...

Just to add to the English versus Esperanto comments.

Would the meeting in Holland switch to Chinese if you were bi-lingual in Mandarin Chinese and Esperanto?

Would the accusation of "language imperialism" come into play?