Friday, March 16, 2007

Speaking in Tongues

Xenoglossophobia—fear of foreign languages—is a communicable, but curable, disease.

“Speak American! You’re in America now.” I’ve heard this more than once from total strangers who’ve heard me speak in Spanish to someone else.
The first time it happened, the rudeness and ignorance of such a statement left me speechless. I didn’t know what to say, but by the second time, I had my comeback ready: “Do you mean Navajo? Dakota? Choctaw? Nahualt? Sorry. Wish I could, but I only know two European languages: English and Spanish.” That always leaves them speechless.
In many other countries, speaking more than one language is a matter of fact or necessity, but is always seen as a valuable social and professional asset.
Americans are notorious for their negative or dismissive attitude towards foreign languages. Many think everyone in the whole wide world should speak English, and forget all that other mumbo-jumbo.
This cultural arrogance can be costly. After September 11, I remember reading several newspaper stories about piles of Al-Qaida-related intelligence intercepts waiting to be translated, but the intelligence agencies did not have enough Arabic translators to handle the job.
Six years later, and in the middle of two wars, the shortage of translators continues to be a deadly problem.
Why are monolingual Americans so averse to embracing foreign languages? Some of the reasons, as you can see in the list of Top Ten Clues included here, may be amusing, but in fact fear of foreign languages is a serious matter.

But there is good news. Although xenoglossophobia is an actual disease it can be conquered, according to The Phobia Clinic, which treats 1,300 different kinds of phobias, and whose team of “board-certified experts can help you live free of Fears, Phobias & Anxiety–in just 24 hours."
Go to their website,, look in the phobia list for “xenoglossophobia” and test yourself. Even if you are a bilingual American you may suffer from this ailment. Nobody is immune.
A couple of years ago I was buying my newspaper at a candy store in East Harlem. A Puerto Rican old-timer was ahead of me, waiting to pay for a soft drink. He was growing impatient because the two Pakistani shopkeepers behind the counter were chatting with each other in Urdu.
Finally, he exploded and said in Spanish: “¡Hablen inglés, que están en América!” (Speak English! You are in America.")
And that, I swear is a true story.

To Why So Many Americans Are So Paranoid, Confused, Turned-Off
And Generally Discombobulated About Languages

10. They believe it’s necessary to amend the Constitution to know for sure which is their official language
9. They think English is an American language.
8. Whenever they hear people speaking in another language, they fear we are talking about them.
7. They hate foreign films because they can’t read English subtitles fast enough.
6. They think San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Colorado, Nevada, Florida and Arizona are just names on a map.
5. They think it’s OK to sell toilet paper and corn flakes to ethnic Americans in their languages of origin, but not OK to have bilingual education or voting ballots in those same languages.
4. They think the American Dream can be dreamt in English only.
3. They believe Pig Latin is a classic language.
2. They say “Pardon My French” after they curse.
And the Number 1 clue to why so many Americans are so paranoid, confused, turned-off and generally discombobulated about languages is:
It is all Greek to them!

Published March 14, 2007

New York Daily News/VIVA section

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