Perceptions of Multilingualism in Europe Compared to America

The Arabic Film Festival is this weekend in Oslo. The festival is the only one of it’s kind in Oslo in that their films are completely from and about the Arab world. It’s one useful way to shine a light on the way of life for this population of people. I’ve been busy with school work so I wasn’t sure I wanted to set aside time to attend, but I’m grateful I chose to go. I was invited by Nadine, one of the Norwegian students I met at the dinner with the Cal reps. We were going to see Min Arabiske Vår. 

I met Nadine and her friends inside of the theater after the lights went down. I didn’t have reception inside the theater so figuring out where she was was a hell of a challenge, especially for someone who doesn’t want to walk in and see the dozens of faces peering back at me at I eagerly search the crowd. I walked in and stood off to the side, just on the opposite of the partition separating me from the crowd. I watch the movie from there for a few minutes. I noticed that the film was in Arabic with Norwegian subtitles. The website showed said the film would have English subtitles and that was not the case. As I was too nervous to go find her in the crowd, this was nearly reason enough to walk away. Ah the struggles of social anxiety, right? I continued watching the film even with the Norwegian subtitles.

A few things happened in that short span of time. One, I was incredibly surprised that I understood what I was reading and two, a woman walked in behind me and with just a few words, I joined the crowd of movie goers. She asked me if I wanted to sit down and I told her it was just too crowded. She told me I could sit anywhere and with that, I followed her in. She might have assumed I didn’t know where my seat was, but it didn’t matter. I point this out as an aside to the story. I am appreciative of those who support others in such small ways. I don’t know if she recognized what those few words meant, but they gave me the encouragement to walk in even though there was a slight language barrier with the movie, I still didn’t know where my friend was sitting, and I was truly looking for any excuse to leave.

I walked into the theater and very quickly found Nadine. She sat in the second and the seat she kindly saved for me was at the very end of the row. It was helpful that she chose such a seat because I no longer had to worry about disrupting the other viewers. I watched the rest of the movie, Norwegian subtitles and all. It wasn’t so bad. I laughed at all the appropriate times and understood the film beyond the pictures I was seeing. *I’m incredibly proud of myself for understanding it!!

The movie was essentially about a Turkish car salesman who is getting married shortly.  As with his culture’s customs, his family selected the bride and his input wasn’t so significant (even if he did have the internal strength to voice his needs at the time). When he goes to another city to sell these cars, he meets a woman at the hotel he’s staying in. She’s a dancer with the hotel entertainment and full of life. He feels alive when he’s with her and this feeling with her makes him question whether or not he wants to get married. He inspires him to speak up for himself and his needs. When he finally tells her that he’s actually engaged, she’s obviously upset. However, he later tells her that they will move to Paris and be together. Days later when they meet at the airport to leave, he tells her that he can’t leave. The film ends there with her crying, but getting on the plane nonetheless. She knew it would happen this way.

The movie ended and the director and moderator came to the front where there was a brief discussion about the movie. Aside from me being proud about understanding the subtitles, I realized what a strange situation I was in – a situation I don’t expect I would experience in America. I was an American in Norway, watching an Arabic film with Norwegian subtitles. The discussion that followed was a Turkish man speaking English and French.

The beauty of Europe and its open borders is the appreciation of languages. The skill of knowing other languages is seen as useful and a way to connect beyond the boundaries that language can often create. The discourse in America is often one of division. There is them and there is us. There is English and there is everything else. I’ve seen cases where someone will be speaking Spanish at a grocery store or somewhere around the city  and some wretched person will say ‘Stop speaking that! No one understands you! Speak English when you are in America!’ These people are also sometimes criticized for their accent. I haven’t seen that in Norway. When I hear a heavily accented person speaking, I’m more wowed that they have gone through the trouble of learning another language. Their broken second, third, or fourth language is more than a person’s monolingual self.

Granted, these perspectives are not so for every person. There is more appreciation and understanding for populations who know multiple languages themselves, come from diverse populations where it is common to know many languages, or have traveled around and have seen how knowing multiple languages is a skill and useful rather than a negative thing. What you should get out of this is the need to be more open to others who speak numerous languages, broken or not.