Language is a great uniter…and a great divider. I just got back from a vacation in Fuerteventura, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, just off the coast of Africa, and while there, the issue of language slapped me in the face…again.
I guess it started when I was speaking to one of the Lufthansa’s flight attendants on the leg from Frankfurt to Madrid. His English was not just good; it was flawless, with virtually no sign of an accent. When I asked how many languages he spoke, he casually said, “six”.
Yikes! I was so embarrassed with my English and my just-enough-to-not-get-arrested-French (and I’m not even certain my English would keep me from getting arrested in England). And that was just the beginning because when Jack and I arrived on the Island, we were in the southern community of Costa Calma where most of the vacationers and residents spoke German. In fact we were doing a home exchange with a couple who owned a condo on the island, but lived in Germany.
It was one of those weird things for me, because in the morning, when passing people, I wasn’t sure if I should say, “Hello,” “Guten Morgen,” or “Buenos días.” So like a dummy, I smiled and nodded half the time. The interesting part is that I clearly looked English or American, so most people greeted me with “hello.”
I’ve travelled a fair amount and I continue to be amazed at the use of English and the privilege and expectation that people can speak “my” language. Of course I find it insulting to think people should know English, so while in this Spanish country, I at least got to know, “¿Habla usted Inglés?” before blathering on in English. Some people didn’t know English at all, but lots more would reply, “un poquito” when in fact their “little” was quite good and by the by, way, way more than my Spanish. There were also plenty who were quite fluent, even in areas of the island where few English speakers frequented (having Americans or Canadians there was a bit of a novelty because of the distance).
For example, at the Oasis Park with plenty of animals, descriptions were often given in Spanish and English, even when most of the non-Spanish speakers were German. No one protested and they all
seemed to know to stay out of the alligator and crocodile pits, due to English instructions (or wait, is that just common sense??).
Before I move on, I almost forgot this one part. During the last weekend on Fuerteventura, there was a much celebrated "Rainbow" festival. While most of the people attending were straight, it was clearly a lot of fun and during a drag performance (and me without my camera) all, and I mean all, of the songs the drag queens lip-synched were in English. While not as lavish, the following night the performers were walking through the street and I did get one picture.
Yesterday in the newspaper, I read about Canada’s former finance minister and now the head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, John Manley giving a speech in Ottawa. He was urging his business audience to encourage more education in more languages, not just English and French. Because Canada is expanding its trade with countries all over the world, he stressed the importance of being able to converse in the language where you want to do business.
I couldn’t agree more. I could look at myself as a lost cause, but I refuse to give up on learning more French (albeit slowly). And after this trip, I said I’d like to go to Germany…and would be willing to take at least a few lessons prior to, in order to get by just a bit.
But we’ve got a bit of a barrier in Canada. One of the most sought-after information on my website is regarding employees speaking other languages at work. It continues to be a struggle where some people think it’s rude, or that others are speaking about them, or that it’s a safety issue. Safety is certainly important, but on the issues of rudeness and possibly gossiping right in front of someone’s face (in another language), those things we’ve got to get over.
When you get to speak your first language, especially if you’re not 100% fluent in English (or French in Quebec), it’s a relief. You don’t have to watch yourself. You don’t have to think about every word or every tense. You don’t have to worry about others judging you…and often we are judging people based on their ability to speak English.
Instead of being insulted or feeling left out, how about asking your co-worker to teach you a few words or phrases in their first language? You might pick up a few things and you might have someone more willing to understand your concerns over common languages. One of my Top 10 Challenges is about language and you might want to check out what I’ve written about that, or even purchase the very inexpensive video as a training item for your workplace.
Yet again, on a trip like this, it has become obvious to me that those who don’t expand their languages will be left behind…in some circumstances. We might struggle – as I do – but we’re never too old to learn a new language, or at least a few key words and phrases. Never.
As more immigrants come to this country with first languages other than English, we’re going to have more challenges with communication, unless we anticipate it, give people support and stop looking at having more than one language as almost a bad thing. It’s a great thing and I can’t wait to keep on with my struggles, because I don’t like the alternative.
One last thing. On our last day in Fuerteventura, we went on an off-road dune buggy tour that lasted more than four hours. It was a lot of fun and we got to know a young couple from Germany, Lauren and Mathias. During pit stops and while sitting together for lunch, we got to learn some German and they got to learn some (more) English. Jack actually knows a good amount of German from high school, so it was rather interesting. Lauren insisted we stay in touch so that we could learn more of each other's language even over the internet. I hope we do because I really like Lauren...she was shocked when she found out hold old I am (see my last newsletter about being referred to as a "senior")
Buenos días…or for those getting this in the afternoon, Buenas tardes.
Last skill testing question:
Jo-Anne Pilkey from Vancouver was the first person to tell me that Wimbeldon was the tennis tournament, that in 2007, announced they would pay equal money to both men and women. Jo-Anne won a copy of my book, Managing Human Rights at Work. Congratulations Jo-Anne.
Today's skill testing question: Today is Persons Day in Canada because on October 18, 1929 the Privy Council of the House of Lords in England ruled that women were in fact "persons" when interpreting Canada's constitution for the appointment of judges and senators. The case was started by the Famous Five women from Alberta when one of these five women's appointment was challenged. The first person who can tell me the name of the woman who's appointment was challenged will win a copy of my book, Managing Human Rights at Work: 101 practical tips to prevent human rights disasters.
This blog: http://www.humanrightseachday.com/
My website: http://www.stephenhammond.ca
My Podcast: Type in “HumanRightsaDay” to the iTunes store and listen to each day's event from my book, Steps in the Rights Direction, or just click here.
My Twitter: http://twitter.com/Rightstoday (each day has historical human rights info)
Stephen Hammond, B.A., LL.B., CSP, is a lawyer-turned professional speaker. He’s written two books, Managing Human Rights at Work: 101 practical tips to prevent human rights disasters and Steps in the Rights Direction: 365 human rights celebrations and tragedies that inspired Canada and the world. Both can be purchased on his website www.StephenHammond.ca
copyright - Stephen Hammond - Struggles with Language or, ¿Habla usted Inglés?