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An American in Paris

How does language still keep people apart in our new global community?

May 11, 2001

How does language still keep people apart in our new global community?

Does this bus go across the river?” the man from Chicago demands of the Parisian bus driver, who looks blank. “I said, this bus goes across the river, or doesn’t it?”

I myself have been in this position, of course, more times than once, in Venice and in Tuscany, but (I choose to believe, at least) I try to make up for it with the necessary abasing looks of ignorance and sorrow and multitudes of thank-yous and head ducks, as the Japanese do here.

The American in Paris just demands, querulously — “Now, you remember that pastry I showed you in the window. Now, I want that one” — in English, and expects the world to answer.

Sometimes the French response is muttered and comic. “Hey, does this bus go across the river?” the woman from California says, mounting onto the steps of the 63. “I wouldn’t come to your country and not speak in your language,” the driver says, in French.

A sensitive listener would detect some frost in the manner, but the American woman doesn’t: “No, I asked you, does this bus go across the river?” Or, worse, Americans ordering in English at French menus, specifying precisely, exigently, what they want in a language the waiters don’t speak.

For all the endless articles in the papers and magazines about the force of globalization and international standardization, language divides and confuses people as effectively now as it ever has. Language really does prevent signs or cultures from going universal. It divides absolutely, and what is really international, truly global, is, in this way, very small.

The real “crisis” in France in fact is not economic (France is in a cyclical slump, but it will end) or even cultural (France is in a cyclical slump, but it will end) but linguistic. French has diminished as an international language, and this will not end.

When people talk about globalization, what they’re really saying is that an English-speaking imperium now stretches from Adelaide to Vancouver, and that anyone who is at home in one bit of it is likely to feel at home in the other bits. You can join this global community by speaking English yourself, but that’s about all.

The space between the average Frenchman (or Italian or German) and the average American is just as great as it has ever been, because language remains in place, and it remains hard. Even after two years of speaking French all the time, I feel it. We breathe in our first language, and swim in our second.

Adapted from “Paris to the Moon” by Adam Gopnik. Copyright © 2000 by Adam Gopnik. Used by permission of Random House.

Adam Gopnik is a writer and editor for The New Yorker. His book, “Paris to the Moon,” is based on his experiences as a Paris correspondent for the magazine.