Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Speak English

I am embarrassed that I can only speak English fluently. I have made stabs of differing intensity, enthusiasm and success at Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, German, Italian, Sanskrit and French. I think it would be ridiculously awesome to be able to speak Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic. I often think about how biased the way I am experiencing the world is towards my Eurafrican world view. The first time I was in a situation where I looked around and no one looked or sounded like me was in Istanbul in 1999. It lasted about an hour and then I was back on a bus full of Kiwis and Aussies. I had left South Africa for the first time in 1998 (I hadn't even gone to Lesotho, Swaziland or Zim despite being a Durban boy). The world I knew was that of a white, English speaking boy. I can speak Afrikaans the best, but anyone from South Africa will tell you how much they laugh at the Natal Accent. White Natal voted strongly against (76%) becoming a republic in the 1960 referendum.


My family background is mixed though. I had family on both sides of the Anglo-boer war (Capulet Montague weddings where the in laws wore their battle gear), but with time and other nationalities joining the party, English won out. English is very convenient. A lot of people learn it as an additional language to their mother tongue. Even if you try learn other languages, the people you are speaking to tend to switch to English when they realise either that you are struggling, or that you present an opportunity for them to practice.

One of the noticeable features of visiting Stockholm and Helsinki has been the ease with which they speak English. 86% of Swedish people and 70% of Finnish people are fluent. You don't even have to ask if they speak English, you assume it. And they speak to you with a smile. In France, I was told early not to speak English first. Start with broken French (however bad), or another language, and then tentatively with a raised eyebrow say 'English?' or 'Je ne parle pas Fran├žais, parlez vous Anglais?'. Hopefully they figure you are also speaking English as a second language and so will tolerate you.

Sweden wasn't always the amazingly awesome country it is. The European Potato famine was brutal. Pre-secular Europe, where the state told you what to believe and kept violently changing its mind, was brutal. Fortunately in those days we weren't obsessed with the idea of Patriotism (we were still prejudiced, but like ADHD in children, the Nation State condition hadn't been invented yet). Through its tough times, 1.2million left for America. 4.4 million Americans claim Swedish descent and 650,000 are 'Finnish' American. English Americans quite often just drop the English bit and call themselves American. Yup, that's how we English Global Citizens roll. Let's all be friends and forget the past.


The Vikings had a long habit of visiting England on 'playdates'. Although English is a 'West Germanic language', it was strongly influenced by Old Norse because of the 10th and 11th century visits. So Swedish and English are cousins. Which is why they probably get on better than English and French which are closer to siblings so irritate each other.

Can I come play?

Finland is a little different. It was part of Sweden from the late 12th century till 1809. Then the Russians moved in for a century until the revolution of 1917 and the Finnish declaration of Independence. The Finnish language is part of the Uralic family (Hungarian, Estonian etc. 38 languages, 25 million people). Interestingly, Helsinki wasn't even the main city till fairly recently. Russia moved the capital from Turku to reduce Swedish influence. Despite being 'one of the best cities in the world', Finland was a late comer to industrialisation and was still largely agrarian until the 1950s. Things can change quickly.

Learning about other countries feels like getting to know extended family. Whether a great-great grandmother, a great-great-great-grandfather or any other connection you find important, there tend to be common threads in our history. We can choose to create stories that connect and learn to speak each others' languages or we can build walls. Family is a choice. So is being a Global Citizen.

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