In the course of the day during my summer teaching (instructing six Jesuit scholastics from Italy and Mexico in English conversation and reading comprehension), we trade a lot of jokes about how Jesuits from different countries perceive each other. Today's zinger came from a perceptive Mexican scholastic:
What do you call a Jesuit who speaks many languages? Multilingual.
What do you call a Jesuit who speaks only two langugages? Bilingual.
What do you call a Jesuit who speaks only one language? American.
I took great offense, mostly because I am expected to, but generally agree with the sentiment behind the humor--everywhere one goes in the world, one encounters multilingual cultures--not just among salespeople and instructors, but even among the general population, not only because it is a necessity in many countries, but because almost everyone wants to learn at least enough English to get by in the new lingua franca (lingua anglica?) of a globalized world. The exception is often Americans, who have the advantage that they usually speak English as a primary language, but who also suffer from a certain chauvinism that expects our interlocutors to speak on our terms. (full disclosure--this includes me).
A telling example could be found in the uproar about the World Cup referee who robbed the United States of a crucial go-ahead goal against Slovenia last month. After Landon Donovan and other American players complained to the referee making the phantom call, they complained again in postgame interviews that he could not even understand them. The referee in question was from Mali--did the American players speak to him in French? Or did they assume he knew English, and then object to his apparent lack of understanding? Perhaps he would not have responded anyway, but from the looks of the video, it was a one-sided exchange conducted exclusively in English.
Is it a safe bet to wait until the entire world understands English? In sports, in business, in religion, in everything else? Should we be learning (gulp) Mandarin Chinese? In any case, in a world where communication is key, what does it portend for our future that the world sees our culture as so linguistically limited, voluntarily or not?
Jim Keane, S.J.