'We Regret You'll Be Unbearable'

When traveling overseas, American tourists expect - indeed depend on - the people in the countries they visit to speak English. Often, much gets lost or mangled in the translations. In Budapest, Hungary, for example, a sign outside a hotel elevator reports: "The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable."

Over the years I have made a hobby of collecting such garbled translations as I come across them in books or Web pages. Many of the malapropisms involve elevators. In Leipzig, Germany, guests are told not "to enter the lift backwards, and only when lit up." A sign in a Paris elevator tells visitors to leave their "values at the front desk."

Some of the mistranslations may in fact be more accurate than we might first assume. A sign in a Copenhagen airline ticket office promises to "take your bags and send them in all directions." Several airlines of my acquaintance are living up to that pledge. Likewise, a Hong Kong dentist once announced that teeth in his office were "extracted by the latest Methodists." At first blush this is clearly a mistranslation for "methods." Yet one wonders. Having been raised a Methodist, I have heard Wesleyan sermons comparable to a tooth extraction.

Clothing-related shops in foreign countries often are victims of clumsy translations. A Bangkok dry cleaning establishment, for instance, urges customers to "drop your trousers here for best results."

While humorous, such butchered translations betray a serious problem: The United States remains dependent on others knowing the English language. We are linguistically underdeveloped when compared to other nations of the world. For all of our burgeoning involvement in international trade and travel, Americans have not yet embraced the need to learn foreign languages ourselves.

We ensure awkwardness and misunderstanding when abroad because we cannot converse with our hosts. Only belatedly are Americans realizing that the whole world does not speak English, and that many of those who have learned English as a second language prefer to converse, transact business, and negotiate in their native tongue. As a recent congressional report concludes, "Foreign language proficiency is crucial to our nation's economic competitiveness and national security." Yet only a minority of American students receive instruction, much less gain proficiency, in a language other than English. Across the nation, the number of college students enrolled in foreign language courses has been declining in the 1990s.

EVEN more troubling is the spotty emphasis on language instruction in the primary grades. Foreign languages are rarely made available to elementary school students. This remains the case even though study after study has demonstrated that children should be exposed to foreign languages at as early an age as possible, for it is much easier for young people to learn new languages than it is for adults. And all American students, not simply the gifted, will benefit from exposure to a foreign language.

Unless we become more literate in languages other than English, we will not reach our potential as a global leader. We will also remain dependent on others doing the translating for us. This means having to read signs like the one in a Greek tailor shop that warns men to buy their summer suits now: "Because of big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation." Talk about pressure sales!

* David Shi is president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

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