October 29, 2021

Speaking in Tongues

Growing up in Canada I was accustomed to hearing things said in English and French. Canada is technically bilingual, which in reality means all the writing on the packaging of everything you buy is in English on one side and French on the other. The government has to address the country in both languages, when you fly in Canada all announcements are made in French and English, all official forms have English on one side and French on the other and there is a version of the national anthem we learn growing up that is half English half French. Also, we’re all taught French in school until sixth grade, or at least we were when I was a kid. 

You might think this means the entire country is fluent in both languages. We are not. Most of the French speakers in Canada live in Quebec. When I was a kid (and possibly still) many parts of the province, including much of Montreal, did not speak English. Most of the rest of Canada does not speak French. Not really. 

That said, all those years of being exposed in small ways to a different language, whether in print or speech, has had a positive, if minimal, effect. When I’m in France, I find that after a week or so my ear adjusts and I can follow most conversations, read basic signs and plaques, and, if not hold up my end entirely, at least make myself somewhat understood (though recently I was told, people in France do not actually use the phrase comme ci, comme ça, a staple in my basic interactions as well as my sixth-grade tests. Desolée!). Even what minimal Spanish I have is informed by my familiarity with French. 

This is how we traditionally think of languages. And certainly, it’s one of the joys of traveling, also the source of much comedy. But recently I’ve been thinking of all the other ways we communicate, and how so often we don’t even realize we need to know another language to exist in the landscape we’ve moved into. 

As a person who has been making a living writing for the last (gasp)(for real, GASP) fifteen years, I have had a lot of experience sliding between the start-up world and what used to be known as the traditional media world. The gap between the two used to be enormous. 

In my online life, I was paid barely enough to live on (actually, less than enough to live on, for most of 2007/2008 I lived on party appetizers) and operated with almost no oversight. What editing I received was usually in the comments section from people yelling at me about the fact I used the word penultimate incorrectly (true) or had spelled blogosphere wrong (also true!). I learned to write fast, be nimble, pull out my computer on the subway, at bus stops, on the floor of hotel lobbies just to get a post up (or 17, as the case usually was). That was how it was done. The first time I wrote for a publication with an actual editor, that also paid me a respectable dollar per word rate, I was shocked at how easy it all seemed. How, again gasp, enjoyable. Was this really how writers at all those publications got to spend their days, with help? With fact checkers? With full meals that included vegetables? The answer was: yes. 

Of course, that world was on its way out and those well-paid, well-fed people were coming my way. Watching an entire generation of magazine reporters try to navigate the unpredictable, relentless, online start-up world was shocking. It required a nimbleness and independence they were unaccustomed to. It also illustrated to me how insane what I was doing actually was.

As the years went by it was even more painful to watch traditional media operations try to move online. All they were interested in was the amount of attention publications online were getting and they wanted in. On the flip side, the money people would see how much respect old institutions were getting and want in on that. No one it seemed took the extra step to figure out how things worked. They wanted fifteen posts a day but the posts had to get approval from a variety of editors. Or they wanted the quality of a heavily researched magazine piece, but without spending the money on the research or understanding the audience would be a niche one. The end result was always the same. People got fired. Businesses went bankrupt. Enormous amounts of money were spent with very little to show. Most writers I know, myself included, simply took jobs at places with the understanding it would last two years max. Take the money while there was money to be had, because it was clear to anyone who actually understood this world, this thing, whatever it was, was going to implode in two years, max. (One of the many reasons five-year plans are so tough! One of the reasons we’re all so good at assessing risks!) 

You’d think somewhere along the way one side would figure out that you can’t function like you are working in your hometown if you haven’t bothered to learn the language. Or even bothered to figure out that a different language might be being spoken. 

I see this same scenario play out over and over again in different industries as the corporate and start-up world increasingly mesh and no one has bothered to figure out how, and equally as important, why certain places function the way they do. Having your eye on the prize, the prize almost always being profits (another problem, entirely) doesn’t mean you don’t have to know how to ask for directions to get there. And whether or not it might be useful to get a translator to help you out.