Any American who has traveled abroad knows that when it comes to speaking other languages we're at a decided disadvantage. Pantomime and gesticulation are the closest most of us will ever get to second language fluency.
Travelers like to tell this joke: What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
And, a person who speaks only one language? An American.
Even our leaders have struggled on this front. President John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" gaffe was relatively harmless and highly entertaining for the Germans. But for sheer embarrassment, nothing is likely to beat Jimmy Carter's expression of admiration for the Poles that somehow translated to, "I lust for the Polish people."
These blunders probably wouldn't happen today, because people all over the world — especially younger generations — are learning English.
It's well known that Europe abounds with polyglots. As well, many Africans speak at least two languages; South Africa has 11 official languages! Believe it or not, there are now more English speakers in China than there are in the United States — although I know from experience that Beijing taxi drivers are not among them.
Multilingual displays are dazzling. On safari in South Africa, our guides spoke Zulu with each other, Afrikaans with the lodge staff and English with us. It's not uncommon to hear a resident of the Istrian region of Croatia begin a sentence in Italian and finish it in Croatian. In a particularly salubrious example, Italy's bicultural and bilingual heritage in Trentino makes it possible to enjoy gnocchi and German beer in the same establishment. Buon Appetito! Prost!
Meanwhile, we muddle along in monolingual inferiority. I can't count the number of times on overseas trips that I've heard a compatriot utter something to the effect, "Everyone here speaks English; what's wrong with us Americans?"
Actually, nothing is wrong with us. But it took a chance encounter in an English pub to help me understand this. While making acquaintances with a fellow American, a young bartender from the establishment joined in just long enough to observe in that delightfully droll English way, "Ah, yes, you Americans and your freakishly large country."
Why didn't I think of that? It's roughly 3,000 miles from here to New York City. By comparison, if you were to drive 2,500 miles from Lisbon, Portugal you would end up in Moscow — after passing through no fewer than nine countries and hearing considerably more than that number of languages.
Our sheer size — our English-speaking sprawl — eliminates the contexts for acquiring a second language that exist in so many places around the globe. It's almost impossible to learn a new language when you don't hear it, use it or need it in daily life.
I learned enough German in graduate school to be, well, dangerous. Not surprisingly, that experience left me ill-prepared for actual conversations with real German speakers, as I learned many years later when traveling in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (which, it must be pointed out, has four official languages).
There have been a few occasions when I needed my rudimentary German to communicate with an innkeeper, to get directions or to order a meal. In a few glorious instances, my attempts to speak their language were met with gracious inquiries about where I "learned" German. However, most of the victims of my schlecht Deutsch mercifully shifted to English — much to the relief of both parties. Alas, defeat was inevitable.