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Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

Parles… Spreek je… Parlez-vous… English?

Barcelona? Si! Netherlands? Ja!! Paris? Oui!!!

This was basically my reaction to my traveling companions’ fall break suggestions; I was excited to go anywhere and everywhere.  While planning, I knew that each region would have its own attitudes, but I hardly paused to think about how I would visit countries with only a very basic understanding of the language at best.  When I first came to Italy, I took a crash course in Italian.  Studying Latin previously helped, and I asked my friends who had taken Italian or Spanish when I needed contemporary explanations of word forms that Latin could not provide.  If I knew I was going out on my own, I would use Google translate and write it down in my journal beforehand so if all else failed, I could at least show somebody what I’m trying to say in Italian. Fortunately in Rome, English is used as a base language between foreigners.  Not only for Italian to English conversation, but also for others such as French and German.

When I traveled during fall break, I tried to learn the basic traveling phrases for each country I visited, but I was also expecting a lot of wrinkled brows, flailing hand gestures, and blank looks.  Although it did occur over the course of our trip, it happened much less than I anticipated. It seems strange to me now that I have not questioned the Italians’ understanding of the English language.  For the most part, I was relieved, especially when I first arrived in Rome.  After traveling however, it’s hard not to wonder about a globalization of language.

We first stayed in Barcelona.  Granted, we did not talk to an overwhelming number of locals, but the people that I did interact with could speak English, or at least understand what I was saying.  I was able to buy a jersey, order food, and ask for directions all in English, and when I attempted to speak Spanish or Catalan, it was usually more effective to revert back to English, much to the relief of my acquaintance.  Visiting the Netherlands was even more English based.  This was not as much a surprise since I had been told by a friend who worked abroad there that Dutch is considered so difficult that most people speak English.  I thought it still odd though whenever the shop workers or hostel workers knew as little Dutch as I did.  There was only one instance during my three days in the Netherlands in which I entered a coffee shop and the workers and menus were entirely in Dutch.  Perhaps it was a marketing ploy, but the feeling of authenticity made the café stand out, and maybe even made the quality of our chai teas better than if we had ordered in English.  Was I a kitschy tourist easily fooled by a simple façade of authenticity, or just proud that I could communicate successfully without a talented barista stooping to use English because of my ignorance?  Too many thoughts to ponder over an omvang gering drank.

France was the place where we were most misunderstood.  One restaurant in particular had no idea what we were asking.  Aha, this is was I was looking for.  Despite the confusion, it was an out-of-place feeling that I had been expecting on my whole trip.  Eventually, we managed to order our crème brulee, although it surprised my traveling companions that some of the French did not understand any English.  The topic of a global language came soon after I arrived back in Rome while Skypeing with a friend from home.  She is contemplating what she wants to do after she graduates.  Take a year off before grad school… travel… it sounds appealing.  While brain storming, I offered up the idea of teaching English in a foreign country, something that I have been hearing about more frequently.  My friend rejected the idea, saying that she thinks that English is destroying historical and regional attitudes and while she understands that English is very important to learn for some foreign trades, she does not want to participate in spreading it.  This was an interesting thought.  Are we slowly moving towards a globalization of language? Is my ignorant tourism aiding a potential global change? I may be having a slight overreaction to the hints of change I witnessed (I blame my hypochondria on studying Latin), but what effect could this have on the future existence of local dialects, cultures, and traditions?

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