Wandering Without Words

Dec. 21, 2004
Take it from this monolingual moron -- English is not the universal language.

Barcelona is on the itinerary for this week, and I'm delighted. But the main reason I'm pleased to be returning to Spain for the first time in more than a decade surprises me. Just a year ago, I would have been thrilled to go back to Spain because of its hospitable climate, its magnificent food, its generally agreeable people. Now, though, I'm delighted because I won't feel like an utter moron when I'm in the back of a taxi. You see, I have become used to feeling like an utter moron since I moved to Dublin to become IW's European bureau chief. I was a moron in Geneva last year. And in Stuttgart. This year, I have been a moron in Paris, Piacenza and Milan. Later this month, I will be a moron in Prague and perhaps Turin. But not in Spain, for I understand Spanish enough to at least rise above moronism. If a taxi driver there says something to me that I don't understand, I will be able to explain to him or her that I don't understand, but that I might if he or she will speak more slowly. I can't describe what a relief that will be. I'll be able to watch more than just CNN on television in the hotel. I'll be able to read the newspaper over coffee. I'll be able to ask directions if I get lost during my drive from Zaragoza to Pamplona. If you spend all your time in the United States, you forget how important such little things can be. I had certainly forgotten. But a year of traveling through Europe has made me acutely aware of how difficult it is to get by comfortably in a place where you can't communicate with the locals. You feel ignorant, lonely, and bored. Especially bored. In my Stuttgart hotel room, the only television programs available in English were CNN and the porn channel, neither one of which was exactly suitable for long-term viewing. In Geneva, it was CNN and SkyNews. In Milan, it was CNN or a Bruce Willis movie on pay-per-view. If you're exceedingly lucky, you find yourself in a city where the International Herald Tribune, a slimmed-down version of USA Today, and maybe The Times of London are readily available at a couple of bucks a pop. Your magazine choices are often Newsweek and, uh, Newsweek. Wander into a bar outside your hotel and you might have to struggle to order a beer. Going to restaurants where no English is spoken exposes you to the very real possibility that you dine on a plate full of the most vile glop imaginable. While picking through a plate of such glop in Stuttgart -- a lukewarm hot dog was the highlight -- I found myself thinking back to college and the debate that raged there over whether to add a foreign-language requirement to the curriculum, a proposal that went down to defeat in the faculty senate. At the time, I thought the faculty was being short-sighted. Now, I think those who voted against the requirement were unutterably stupid. I feel the same way about the American educational system in general. We rush to make our students computer-literate before they're literally literate, and we neglect to give them the keys to unlocking other cultures. Sure, the Internet is helping to make English a global medium of exchange. Globalization of business also is lending to the worldwide primacy of English. Even in Paris, where the natives supposedly have a disdain for languages other than their own, I ordered from English-language menus and met with bilingual executives who handed me two-sided, bilingual business cards. The business cards worked well enough, but the menus were missing something. At one restaurant, I asked my dinner companion what he would be ordering, and he named something that wasn't on my menu. The English version was fairly complete, but one or two things were left out in the translation. They always are. In Milan, I was in a cab going from hotel to train station when I noticed an absolutely magnificent building. By the time I had leafed through my phrasebook to find out how to ask what the building was, it was well behind us. What did it matter, though? I wouldn't have understood his answer, anyway. Getting the chance to visit all these magnificent cities of Europe has been a dream come true, in many ways, but I came away from each of them feeling as though I had missed something -- and feeling more than a hint of regret that I hadn't set myself to learning a few more languages while my mind was still young and nimble. Hence the pleasure with which I look forward to visiting Spain again. If I'm curious about something, I'll scrape the rust off my Spanish and ask someone. I won't have to wander around like a man with his tongue cut out, pointing to things and shrugging a lot. I won't have to feel foolish or ignorant there, whether in a business meeting or at a shop. That will be a wonderful feeling, to be sure. But then it's on to Prague, where I'll be a moron again.

Tom Mudd is IndustryWeek's European bureau chief. He is based in Dublin.

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