Language politics: Germany, Japan, Cote d'Ivoire

Following this item about how China and America had one attitude toward foreigners trying to speak their language, while Japan, France, and (arguably) the Ivory Coast had a different view, some assent, dissent, and elaboration. These are long but if you're interested in language, then the detail is interesting.

About German speakers:

"Vigorous agreement on the American attitude towards foreigners speaking English, as contrasted with (in this case) German-speakers. My mother, an Austrian, always used to watch as my dad, an American, inevitably got mocked in her homeland for his imperfect German accent, and, indeed, imperfect German (which was still pretty good). She notes this would never happen in America -- it is rare for Americans to actively mock a foreigner's accent. When they do, it's usually in a way that somehow includes the foreign speaker. (We have a young family friend who sometimes says a word or two in "Churman" to make fun of her -- but he doesn't know any language but English -- he isn't lording any linguistic superiority over her -- knowing 2-3 languages to him is like ESP, a genuinely remarkable capacity.) Mom always says that the most common American reaction to her accent is a genuinely curious and open, "You have such a nice accent -- where are you from?"
"Those German-speakers aren't being malicious -- something about the relative difficulty of the language instills this attitude in them. It's just hard for a foreigner to avoid mistakes that every educated German-speaker learns to avoid at the age of five. Also, note that in German there is a sharp distinction between "Hochdeutsch" and the vernacular German that the unlettered masses speak, meaning that a fairly substantial percentage of the population isn't even really trying to speak German correctly. English doesn't really recognize any such division -- we're all speaking English, one way or another. (Also, it fascinates me that the dictionary in German is known as the "Fremdwörterbuch" -- the book of foreign words -- you know, those hard Latinate words that you sometimes need to look up -- everyone knows the core German words. Mongrel English treats all words the same, regardless of origin.)

"My mother, whose English in the meantime is excellent (but with an accent), observes that the thing about English is that the first stages of learning the language are easy -- anyone can learn it. And then comes the huge chasm to true fluency. English's vast vocabulary creates endless nuance in expression, which is just damnably difficult to master. But the first stages are easy, a linguistic open-door policy."

About Japanese:

"I agree with your comments about the Japanese language. I am a 2-year resident of Tokyo with fairly strong Japanese skills. [After some university study in Hiroshima and London] I mastered the language not by learning it from textbooks, but doing it on my own will-power. So, by speaking to people in Japanese almost non-stop, by reading books and newspapers in Japanese, watching Japanese television programs and listening to Japanese music and the radio, and by making requests by emails and fax for work in Japanese. Dating a Japanese girl for 3 years who only spoke Japanese, helped too. (we're no longer together, but I am grateful to her for the hours we spend talking together) I'm still learning day-by-day, but I am approaching the upper-intermediate level."
"When a Japanese person and I talk to each other, one of the first things they say, is that my Japanese is good and natural. ("Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!) Especially they say I sound like a Japanese person. (Nihonjinmitai desu ne!" / "Hatsuon ga Nihonjin to onaji mitai desu ne!") Sometimes, on the phone, they mistake me for being Japanese! ("Ah! Nihonjin da to omotta!")  Occassionally people who I have known for a long time, still note the same thing. Like they fall back on a habitually set-pattern of behaviour.

"It seems that they can't place a foreigner approaching a level of fluency similar to that of a native speaker in the appropriate box. It matches the belief that things should be done according to a set way. All there is left for them to do, is compliment.

"It's one way to reduce risk."

About various languages in Cote d'Ivoire:

"I lived in Ivory Coast for a couple of years, back in the early '70's.  That was a while ago, so maybe I'm way out of date, but:

"The reason they still call it Côte d'Ivoire is that there are lots of local languages-- you hear estimates between 60 and 80, so if you name the country in one language you piss off the other 59 or 79 tribes.  So it is linguistically as diverse as the US and maybe China.

"There are lots of ways of speaking French in Abidjan, from the crude common pidgin on up to a few people with French metro grammar and accents.

"There is a commercial patois that almost everybody can get along in, Dioula, named after a tribe related to the Malinké, which have strong enclaves around the country and functions something like the Lebanese or maybe Jews, or like Indians in South Africa or the overseas Chinese I've heard about.  So anyone you're liable to run into in Ivory Coast is comfortable using at least three languages, two of them probably pretty badly.

"It always appeared to me that in the Côte the main interest in any exchange in any language or confusion of languages was understanding what everyone had to say, and there was zero mocking, although a reasonable amount of privately-shared savoring of flavorful phrases or accents. Even the French, who were then everywhere, seemed to skip language-based mocking, and to get mostly a kick out of the local accents and the murdering of French that went on.  Low-life Ivoirian French was necessary and easy to speak.

"We were far up-country from Abidjan, true, but knew that town somewhat, and the idea of anyone mocking a tourist's French, even if there were non-French-speaking tourists to practice on, would have seemed pretty bizarre.  As would refusing to speak English for fear of being mocked. I'm guessing that the Ghanaian hairdresser in the story was speaking fantasies out of the writer's imagination rather than explaining anything about the Ivoirian attitude toward language. I'm also having a hard time imagining that someone from Ghana would call English her native language.  I know an Ivoirian wouldn't call French hers, unless she was one confused Ivoirian. [JF note: Having lived in Ghana at the same time this correspondent was living in Ivory Coast, I agree about the role of English there. Most educated people spoke it, but most would claim an African language -- Twi, Fante, etc -- as their mother tongue.]

"Full disclosure:  I don't think I've ever heard even a Frenchman mock anyone's French, so It's possible that I am just deaf to the practice.  I think it's one of those things people just believe because they've heard about it a lot, like the one about people spitting on returning Vietnam GI's.  I've seen or experienced plenty of Frenchmen not understanding wrong French, but don't remember any of them mocking it."

On this last point, the "spitting on vets" question is a whole separate controversy. As for French people with their language, I have seen enough eye-rolling and little smirks, or 'Pliz just spik ze English madame' to think that the mockery is not just an urban myth.