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Why do we find foreign languages, nay, foreignity, so romantic?

Some of my facebook friends plop french phrases into their status updates and poems on a semi-regular basis. Notably, the ones who seem to be cultivating a rep as “artsy”, and the ones who *ahem* I believe have chosen to not take french classes in school past the point where it was obligatory…

I’ve noticed that one of my MSN contacts (you know, the ones you have, but never talk to…or is that just me?) has a small string of Asian characters in his screen name, but from what I know about him, I would have given him a 1 in 20 chance of actually knowing an Asian language (but if he’s actually interested in learning, then kudos!).

My friends who have taken Spanish frequently burst randomly into it, like an inside joke, just one spanning their entire knowledge of a language. Oh, and one of them also incorporates her “expertise” of French and Italian in there too.

I’ve heard (though not actually experienced) that some “more serious” anime fans disparage of the silly “fan-girls” who frequently squeal in Japanese whatever four words they’ve picked up from Sailor Moon and Pokemon (watched only for the cuteness of the critters, of course…).

But why? Showing off knowledge of another language in this for is certainly not about utility, not when this so-called “knowledge” is only limited to a few characters and phrases. In fact, limited language has almost become a culture in itself, the way these teens around me are using it.

And a very limited knowledge it is! No matter what the language, or who the speaker, I seem to be catching only the same snatches over and over again. Really, they are inside jokes…used for a reaction, used for praise, used so that every time they appear, the speakers and those privy to the humour can giggle together. See, but that’s the thing…those snatches of other languages, those mouths forming themselves into the same foreign shapes over and over until they’re no longer foreign, are only the tip of the iceberg, and yet they’re left at that. As long as they know what a word or two means, they’re good, they know enough to show off, and there’s no more need to learn.

Sure, the romanticism of foreign cultures is no stranger to the world; kimono-inspired shirts, pinatas, and various foods have all been introduced to my little western corner of the world, amongst other things. But think about it; how many times have you swung at a paper-mache figure at a party, or smirked briefly over that fact that it was the fifth of may, and you were eating salsa, and simply left it at that? How many times have you done anything directly associated with another culture, and felt proud, worldly, and cultured, despite the briefness of your “plunging into another world”?

Construe it one way, and one could almost interpret those proud flashes, those brief giggles, an insult to the culture itself. That those people feel that kimonos, geisha (who are not prostitutes!), cherry blossoms, and “sugoi-ne!” are all that need to be explored of Japanese culture before being entitled to that feeling of satisfaction. And why not, exactly? The Japanese are a people with a vast and interesting culture, or are these pinky-dippers just too lazy?

Furthermore, it’s not even that useful, the what these people know. Pray tell, what’s the use of knowing how to say “love does not last forever” in French, like, ever? Sure, maybe I pretty much only know how to express my name and ask where the bathroom is in Spanish (a fact which I’m not proud of), but at least I can be proud that should I ever find myself unexpectedly in Spain, I will never have an overly full bladder.

So, then, why? Do other cultures find themselves as enraptured and captivated by a limited knowledge of the American Way? Why encourage that stems from laziness and self-importance, and ends in other people’s annoyance? On the other hand, do these other people even have a right to be annoyed, for are the pinky-dippers, in reality, more intelligent and worldly?


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