The Mancunian Way: Dispatches from the Motherland

Andrew Wickerham

It’s been a rather long while since I’ve submitted a Dispatch to you. My apologies. Since I last wrote, the British economy tanked, Manchester’s charming November weather-you don’t even want to know-set in and the post-Soviet allure of Berlin’s art scene called me to the Continent once again. It’s been an extremely eventful few weeks, and quite sadly I’m now faced with the prospect of returning home in just a scant month’s time. Yet, I’ve come to the decision that the transition to the U.S. might not be that jarring after all.

Several years ago, when I was just a shaggy-haired little preppy contemplating a college term abroad, I was wont to say that going to an English-speaking country was a bloody of a waste of time. If I were to study abroad, I absolutely had to go to a Spanish-speaking country: somewhere where the Peso or Real was cheap and the language was exotic. Typical, then, that I ended up in the birthplace of English, subjected to the worst exchange rate this side of the Meridian.

Thus, when I venture to Germany, Italy, wherever, the worldly-read: stubborn-side of me kicks in and I do my best to avoid being the ugly American by attempting to speak the local language. Fellow Euro adventurer Kate Stichnoth always tells me that this is a waste of time if I’m not fluent-“Everybody speaks English, you little tartlet!” Still, I resist and “Guten Tag” and “Merci” my way from city to city.

Loathe as I am to admit it, the wretch was right.

You see, something funny seems to have happened in Europe over the last decade or so. Put quite simply, English won. I don’t mean that the national languages of the EU are dying. A trip to the EU Parliament and its 27 channels of simultaneous translation is evidence enough of that. No, what I mean is that the Anglophone citizens of the world simply don’t need to speak a foreign language any more. Every street sign, every airline safety announcement, every subway ticket is printed in English-and is backed up by an English-speaking staffer to help sort out any remaining confusion.

Maybe it was the Internet or maybe it’s the fault of globalization, but the national language seems to be a sort of second-string form of communication these days. Try and speak one word of the local tongue and you’ll get a face-full of it back at you; the “attempt to try and speak Italian” that Frommer’s used to encourage to win-over the local shopkeeper is now more of a distraction and delay than a friendly gesture.

A tour guide in Prague told me a joke about modern language “barriers”: Somebody who speaks two languages is…? Bilingual. Right, but what about three languages? Trilingual. Right! And just one language? Uhh…uni…? American! British! Australian!

The funny thing is that we don’t get evil glares for it anymore.

With all of this, I don’t mean to suggest that Americans shouldn’t learn another language. Lyn Rugg would sooner kill me and nullify my grade from Spanish 202B. No, I certainly encourage all U.S. students to learn to speak Spanish, French, Chinese-whatever will prevent one from being screwed over in a business deal or prevent one from understanding that the evil Germans behind you are chanting, “Fat American cows.” Learn those languages and impress your foreign hosts. Just don’t avoid foreign travel because you are a tad nervous about ordering an omelet in Bruges.

I don’t advocate for American hegemony, I simply revel in it. I leave you now, ready for my last few weeks in Europe, hopefully speaking English all the way. I’ll be thinking of you all as I attempt to coordinate a Thanksgiving dinner using dumpy British dorm ovens. Have a good week, Colgate.