Polyglossalia

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.

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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.

 

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David Nickol
7 years 5 months ago
I have heard this joke in more general terms - that is, ''what do you call a person'' not ''what do you call a Jesuit . . .''  But of course, as you imply in you last paragraph, the question is what second (third, fourth) language ought English-speaking people to learn? French used to be a good candidate, but it seems to me it isn't any more. 
 
Of course, your Mexican scholastic was not really very perceptive. There are large numbers of Americans who are bilingual. Wikipedia tells us, ''There are 45 million Hispanics [in the United States] who speak Spanish as a first or second language and there are 6 million Spanish students, making it the world's second-largest Spanish-speaking community, only after Mexico and ahead of Spain, Colombia and Argentina.'' I think it's a good guess to say there are many more language spoken in the United States, because of the diversity of our immigrant population, than in any other country in the world. So anyone who answers ''American'' to the question ''What do you call a person who speaks only one language,'' is overlooking a huge number of bilingual Americans who are just as American the people targeted by the joke. 
 
Of course, many Americans raised to speak English never learn another language, which I think is the real point of the joke. But if you want a retort to the Mexican scholastic, you might ask pointedly if he doesn't consider Spanish-speaking citizens of this country to be Americans.
Wendy Petzall
7 years 5 months ago
Hi!
One of the things that have most helped me, both in life and in my attempts at helping friends be closer to God, is the ability to speak in more than one language. The thing is that, when you learn another language, you also absorb, so to speak, the culture(s) that go with the history and mores of that language. And this gives you a much wider view of the world, a better understanding of the points of view of other people, be they members of your own people or even family, or complete strangers.
So, yes, I would say we all need to learn more about others, and a good starting point is the effort required to learn a new language.
By the way, I am a native speaker of Spanish, which is my mother tongue. I didn't start to speak, much less write, in English until I was about 25 years old! So, I'd say I'm a case in point, don't you?
All the best!
 
Wendy
7 years 5 months ago
Now I speak nothing but English and admit it.  It is not something I am proud of nor it is something I am ashamed of.  One of my sons spoke fluent Japanese and fluent Germany, having lived in both countries.  He now is fluent in neither and has no incentive to get it back since the lingua franca of the world is English.  
 
What other language should one learn?  Someone said Mandarin, others may say Spanish.  But why?  It certainly nice to know another language or several.  It was only 20 years ago that Japanese was the future.  At the moment there is no necessity to learn any specific language other than English.  Personally I would have liked to learn Spanish because I enjoy South America and would probably be more comfortable there if I could converse with the people where only a few speak English.
Claude Muncey
7 years 5 months ago
Well, actually, they were supposed to understand English.
According to the Associated Press (http://www.signature9.com/living/fifa-referees-will-be-watching-players-mouths-in-multiple-languages) the official language of the 2010 World Cup is English.  I speculate that this is because of the finals being held in South Aftrica - perhaps in 2014 all the officials and players will need to speak Brasilian Portuguese.
More interesting in the article cited is the training the refs received to be able to understand insults in a variety of languages.  Is there a good textbook for that?  Perhaps some recordings that one could play in the car to practice while commuting?

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