We Americans often feel insecure when we can't speak other languages when we travel overseas. Granted, maybe not insecure enough to actually learn another language—but smiling, nodding, and frequently yelling "Merci!" is a good start, right?
The good news: It turns out we may not be the world's biggest linguistic laggards. According to a recent TripAdvisor survey of Europeans, the British ranked as the worst at speaking another tongue when traveling. Only 11 percent of those surveyed could speak another language fluently, while 22 percent of them couldn't speak even one word in another language. Plus, a whopping 74 percent of Britons expected people overseas to be able to speak English.
So what about those stats that say that half of all Europeans are fluent in another language, compared to the 18 percent of Americans? That holds true in Italy and France, where 51 and 50 percent, respectively, can speak fluently in another language, according to the survey. The Germans, meanwhile, blow the curve, boasting 70 percent who are fluent in another language (and only 1 percent is clueless in another tongue).
In defense of the Brits (and ourselves), we could say that the other Europeans are just making it too easy for us to be linguistically lazy, at least in the Eurozone. It's a good bet, after all, that the second language all those Germans, French and Italians speak is English.
Photo © Chad Ehlers/ Alamy
Thanks to the rise of social networking, smartphones, and faster Internet speeds, it’s never been easier to immerse yourself in a new language without even leaving home.
The best-known method is Rosetta Stone, the interactive, total-immersion-style program that uses intuitive flash-card-like video games to teach students in the same way a child might learn a language. In other words: no boring grammar lectures or lessons. The service’s Totale Version 4 program ($249; rosettastone.com) offers interactive, voice-recognition-enabled lessons in any of 24 languages on CD, online, or via an app for iPhone, as well as through live online sessions with a native speaker. For the more scholarly minded, Livemocha’s Active classes ($99–$399 per year; livemocha.com) for French, Italian, Spanish, and German deliver a mix of text-based grammar and usage lessons and repeat-after-me-style exercises that use voice recognition to test pronunciation. Learners also interact with teachers and native speakers online, both in live video sessions and via e-mail and recorded voice messages.
Looking at old maps and cartograms seems particularly relevant in a time when we’re all thinking about how information is relayed and consumed. The map of the world now centers squarely on the user. Online mapping, via sites like Google Maps, MapQuest, and Yahoo Maps, GPS chips in our phones and cars, and all the smartphone mapping apps, have allowed us to create custom maps and overlay our personal histories on geographical charts. What’s next in our journey to measure and display the world around us? It surely won’t be a folded piece of paper, but what is it?
Here are three maps that don’t conform to the badly-folded-paper-jammed–in-the-glove-compartment variety and which have caught my attention recently:
- This illustration depicts a 19th-century Inuit carvings of the coast of Greenland. The carving served as a tactile map—you could canoe along the coastline and follow the undulations of the land with your finger. When you come to the end of the map, you flip it over and the portable coastline continues down the other side. It floats, it’s waterproof, and it doesn’t require literacy or even good light. Brilliant.
For the last week or so, I spent some time playing around with a couple of iPhone/iPod Touch apps created by a company called MemoryLifter.* As the name suggests, the apps are of the brain food sort. While they offer an assortment of genres—anatomy, chemistry abbreviations, world flags, etc.—I was most interested in the language apps.
Each language available—there are 10 right now: German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Swedish—comes with an assortment of area-specific apps, like basic vocab, verbs, education & work, family, shopping & restaurant, and more.
I work in T+L’s Research Department, which requires fluency in a minimum of one foreign language (I speak French), but heading to a preview last Thursday for the new TOTALe product from Rosetta Stone, one of the leaders in foreign langage instruction, my aim was to brush up on my Portuguese, which I had picked up in bits and pieces on a trip to Rio. Though I remember being able to communicate with the locals (it’s hard not to), today, eight months later, I recall only one word: guarana, the name of a fruit, and also the base of a popular soft drink. How far could I get, in 30 minutes, with TOTALe? Would I be able to order more than a Guarana?