Three languages? Trilingual. Two? Bilingual. One? American.

There’s an old joke that asks what someone who can speak x number of languages is called, and goes through (depending on how pedantic the teller is) the various prefixes down through bilingual for someone who speaks two languages. The final question is, of course, what one would call someone who can only speak a single language. The natural progression would be to monolingual, of course. The joke turns it around and says “American.”

All too often, this is true. Though my mind has started putting an “insert your own frothing-at-the-mouth-Republican joke here” after bilingual, due to the all too frequent bitchings about “if you’re going to come to this country, learn the damned language!” from the right wing.

Unfortunately, I fall pretty squarely into the “American” stereotype, because I have a hard time following a conversation between two native Spanish speakers. It has a bit more to do with the inflections and lingual shortcuts native speakers of any language take than lack of understanding of most of the words, because as a word geek, I can tease out the meaning of most words, especially if I see them written down.

However, I’m also not going to go to another country and automatically expect them to know perfect American English just because I’m in the vicinity, which seems to be the modus operandi of most of those frothing-at-the-mouth-Republicans who expect immigrants to know perfect American English upon day two or three after setting foot on American soil. …If they’re feeling generous. Yes, this his hyperbole. Unfortunately, it’s not hyperbolic enough to be less than true.

Instead of speaking my American English more loudly and slowly when someone doesn’t understand, I tend to be embarrassed that I don’t know their language well enough to speak it in a way they’d prefer to hear. In fact, I think that if I ever end up going to any country other than maybe Canada, I’ll make it a point to learn the sentence “I apologise for my inability to speak your language.” before anything else. Or, at the very least, have it written down.

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