When visiting another country that we are not familiar with, Americans should politely and humbly ask residents if they speak English — preferably in their language. I remember when my husband and I were traveling in Italy and we were scared that we were about to miss our train. I ran up to the ticket counter and said with my American manners, “Two tickets please”. Well, this older Italian woman was instantly put off by me and we missed our train. I should have made an attempt to ask in Italian; or said, Mi scusi, parla inglese? It wasn’t funny then, but I learned a valuable lesson. It is respectful to make an effort to speak the language of the country you are visiting! Many people that travelers encounter do speak English, but it is polite to attempt their language.
Part of what makes learning a new language difficult is learning the customs, manners, and correct pronoun usage. Tu is used in French when you’re talking to someone you know well, like a family member or best friend. Vous is used with people you don’t know very well regardless of their age, strangers, corporate hierarchy, or someone older who demands respect. The French word Tutoyer means to address someone using the familiar forms of the pronoun “you” rather than the more formal forms. Tu is a mark of friendship. I think it’s correct to say, when in doubt use Vous, Sie, Usted until the native speaker says otherwise.
Prior to the French Revolution, people addressed each other withtu. It was the way bourgeois or noble people addressed their servants. Tu (French and Spanish) and Du (German) are for children, family members, and friends.
I don’t know about you but I think of Japan as a culture of politeness. I had the pleasure of visiting with some Japanese teachers who came to the school where I teach a few years ago to observe American children in public school. I remember being blown away when the Japanese teachers said they thought America was very strict! I always had the stereotype that the Japanese teachers must be extremely strict because the children are so formal.
My class’ Japanese teacher, Yoshie, was explaining to me that there are five levels of politeness in Japan! They are determined by a variety of factors: job, age, experience, children… There are different ways of speaking: honorific and humble. The Japanese culture is structured by polite interactions. The politeness levels in Japan are tremendously difficult and intricate. The male and female patterns of speech and politeness are much different.
This makes the Japanese seem a bit passionless to me. There’s a lack of familiarity that we have here. On the opposite end, there are places like Brazil where the people are relaxed and have a liberal showing of affection. Here in the U.S. we are comfortable with informalities but not as intimate as Brazil. Language and culture constantly evolves, but I think politeness and respect can always help keep a nice balance.
Think about the difference in pronouns and the constant capitalization of nouns. In German, a word is written the way it is said. The pronounSie has all functions of you, him, her, it, and them. Sie is a way to formally address. We have our own special pronoun in Texas, “y’all!” It is very commonly used here but say it in New York and you have an audience of horrified gawkers!
We CAN hear formal English in everyday life but we might not even notice it because it comes so naturally. A perfect example is The Lord’s Prayer Our Father whoart in Heaven. But, we don’t speak this way unless we’re in a Shakespeare play or just want to be gawked at!
It’s common to teach babies sign language. My children know the basics: Mommy, Daddy, please, thank you…Children soak up any and all languages when their young. That’s why it is so important to introduce language at an early age.
My brother Sean, who is fluent in Spanish, is always trying to talk me into going to a Spanish language school on my summer break. With two young kids, I don’t see this happening for a very long time. But, it’s a lovely idea!
Mark Twain wrote “a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.” I won’t ever be fluent in anything unless I become a foreigner myself! But I have a long standing date with the Rosetta Stone and hopefully that will at least be an improvement!
I feel guilty using the word foreigner because it means: alien, non-citizen, and outsider. If I were living in a country that I didn’t grow up in, I wouldn’t want to be called “foreigner.” After all, this is their home now.
My husband and I went to Paris with another couple years ago. Our travel companion, Julie, grew up in Paris and spoke fluent French. I noticed how careful she was when she spoke in public, especially to waiters and clerks. She mentioned how embarrassed her mother would get when she went back to Paris to visit her family. She would be teased for her lack of “in the know” new phrases and her Texas/French accent. Language is constantly changing! It’s impossible to keep up unless you are a world traveler!
There is a German tradition I’ve read about that I think is perfect and hilarious! Any time you become close enough with somebody that you switch fromSie to du, you seal it by having a beer together. I just love that!
We can sometimes have a lack of respect just because it’s in our nature. I have an example as a teacher… If a parent addresses me as Ashley without me asking them to, it doesn’t seem quite right! I think you have to wait for someone to tell you it’s O.K. to call me by their first name. My parent volunteers will start by calling me Mrs. Cooley along with the children. I quickly ask them to call me Ashley because I think it’s nice to be informal and establish a casual relationship. Just as long as you begin your relationship with respect first.
It is a pet peeve of mine when people don’t address you at all. Especially in e-mails if they start jumping into questions without a “Dear Ashley,” I am put off because it feels like they are shouting at me!
When parents in America get mad at their children, we suddenly stop using cute nicknames and use their full names. I remember my mom and dad saying, “Ashley Elizabeth” instead of my regular “Ash”. I knew I was in trouble!
I don’t like feeling frustrated! I can usually laugh off most anything. If not I can certainly saymerde and shizer! But, when I’m not good at something it fuels my fire to do it better. So, like Mark Twain said; it may take me thirty years but I’ll get there and so can you!