Silicon Valley Linguistics or an American Abroad

And we’re back… Bienvenue to 2014!

Can you believe it’s already February? Just like that, we’re into the second month of the year and it’s time to return to the telling of Silicon Valley Tales.

Today’s tale is a story of linguistics. I was once again traveling abroad. This time for my work at  I had the opportunity to visit England, Belgium, Switzerland (briefly) and the French Alps. My colleagues were generous, kind and hospitable. We toured Ghent, Belgium and the French Alps for a little winter time fun. It was a great trip.

Every day we spent a few hours in group meetings and in working sessions. We talked about needs for each market and my co-workers would seamlessly switch back and forth from one language to another. I just stared at them in wonder. I started to play the, “let’s see if I can guess what they are saying,” game. Surprisingly I got some things right. This was more from body language and inflection than anything else.

But when it got right down to it, I felt more and more like… a stupid American. Not on every topic but definitely in my communication abilities.  Most of my co-workers speak at least three languages, Dutch, French, and English. I took French for a year in high school and three semesters in college.  I still can’t speak French. I can barely understand people speaking French.  It’s the only subject I ever got less than a passing grade in.

During the team outing, a small group of us were standing on a mountain top in the ski-resort, Flaine. Our very rigid, French instructor asked if she should speak English. Everyone looked at each other and then looked at me. “Uhh… no go ahead and speak French, I’ll try and keep up.”   She shook her head a little bit. After all, she already explained to me that my ski boots were on the wrong feet. (Oops. It’s been 10 years since the last time I went skiing.)  After an hour of kindergarten style instructions, she started calling me, “Madame Americain.”  I felt like there was a dunce cap on top of my head for the whole lesson, but nothing a little European style apres-ski drinking wouldn’t take care of.

While enjoying some warm spiced wine at the bar, I asked my co-workers how they achieved their linguistic success. They all pointed to that media source that Americans love to hate: TV.  Over and over, I heard, “oh I learned English from watching American television. It’s even better now that you can pick shows to watch on-demand.”  Huh. Really? Maybe I need to start watching Telemundo more often.  Parents of small children take note! Maybe a little foreign TV isn’t so bad for your children after all!

We continued to talk about cultural differences and the fact that you couldn’t drive more than two hours in any directions without having to speak a different language. No one really cared that I couldn’t speak an extra language.  They really wanted to know why Americans got upset when foreigners spoke badly about the US government.   I looked at them and said, “I can’t blame you for speaking badly about parts of our government, I do it  almost daily. Maybe we’re just mad we can only do it in one language.”

Welcome back. Looking forward to a slew of new tales from our authors.

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