Sunday, November 7, 2010

Language Hubris

One of the things I love most about Spain is how welcoming people are, and, most notably, how there is no language hubris among them, unlike in France. 

Spanish people know that their language is beautiful and they are proud of it and they're happy when people make the effort to learn it, so they are very encouraging.

If you go anywhere in Spain and you speak with a Latin American accent, be it Argentinian, Peruvian, Mexican, or whatever, people will just be happy to speak to you in their mother tongue.  If you're obviously not Hispanic, like me, they will compliment you on your speaking skills and they'll keep encouraging you.

In France, people are not generally so welcoming.  Don't get me wrong, I have very good friends who are French who have been instrumental in the improvement of my French, but I find that, in general, they are nicer when you interact with them on a one-on-one or one-on-few basis, and strangers are not as kind. 

When I was living in Nice as an exchange student, the program coordinator of my exchange program was a professor who grew up in Grenoble.  Obviously, her accent wasn't Niçois - so locals asked her all the time what COUNTRY she was from!  Not what city, but what country, because whenever she insisted that she was French, they would exclaim, "That can't be!  Your accent is so strange!  You can't really be French - where are you from?"

Similarly, I had many local classmates in France "bestow" their approval upon me by telling me that it's a good thing I don't speak with a Québecois accent, despite being Canadian, because that's not "Real French." 

Isn't that amazing?  Isn't that ridiculous?

There's this strong sense of believing that one's own accent is the ONLY acceptable one, that any other dialects or accents are inferior.  I can't understand that.

I firmly believe that language is a living entity.  It changes all the time because people and culture change all the time - so there's no such thing as a better version, a better dialect, or really a better accent.  If you can go somewhere foreign and manage to communicate well - I think that's the most important thing.

I also speak Chinese - the Cantonese dialect is my other mother tongue, besides English.  The speakers of the Mandarin dialect far, far, FAR outnumber speakers of other Chinese dialects, but a Mandarin speaker would never say that Cantonese, or Shanghainese, or Taiwanese, or Toisanese, or any number of other Chinese dialects aren't "real Chinese".

Can we please get over language hubris and be a little more open-minded?

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