As an Australian living in Paris, I am often asked what things visitors should see while they’re here. My answer is not what they generally expect and not always well received. But I stand by it. When visiting another country, make a point of visiting their maritime museum, if they have one, or a military museum or other establishment that commemorates that country’s history. After all, every country has history, just as it has politics. And, like politics, history does not happen in isolation, but in the context of neighbours, allies and rivals.
There is also geography, which often dictates the course of history. How did what that country do depend on where it is. Why were Venice and Florence so important and why are they less geopolitically important now? How is it that Amsterdam and Lisbon rose to such global power? What attracted them so much to the far reaches of what is now Indonesia? What did Javanese kings and eastern islanders think about all that? What, if anything, was in it for them? Anglosphere visitors have rich pickings, wherever they go. If their education featured English history, then visit anywhere on the globe and local history is likely to feature how the locals saw their engagement with English, which is not always the benevolence of ‘modern’ infrastructure, enduring legal structures and the ‘superior’ system of law and order they bestowed that greets you.
Americans had quite a different view of English rule. Yet they, too are well advised to see how other countries saw Americans’ efforts to improve, often by ‘democratising’ them. If you are a student of history, you will recognise in paintings and other artifacts, souvenirs of battles that may not be recounted as you had understood them. Which version is correct? Good question. History is after all written by the victors, as they say. You are reminded that we can never really know what actually happened.
In any case, what actually happened may not matter: it is how we see it now that matters and if we cannot see the other’s point of view then conflict is bound to recur. But why wait until we visit another country? We can learn a lot about how others see the world by learning their languages. English is now taught widely outside the anglosphere, but foreign languages feature much less – often not at all – in typical Anglophone education. English speakers wail that you don’t need to learn anything else, since everyone else speaks English anyway. But if you’re learning Italian or Spanish just so you can navigate your way to the next tourist attraction and order the type of coffee you want, then you’re missing the point altogether.
Learning a foreign language is about learning another way of structuring thoughts. You have to think a bit differently, the more different the language from your own, the greater the challenge. Try expressing yourself in a language with no tenses, no distinction between singular and plural, not even the verbs ‘to be’ or ‘to have’. Or a language that uses a different alphabet altogether, or no alphabet at all. The first thing you will notice is that you’re much more sympathetic to those you meet struggling to make themselves understood in English as their second, third or fourth language. If you know a bit about their language and the country they come from, you will almost certainly be curious to learn more; to learn how they see the world and how it is different from how you had understood it.
If you are really curious, you might be motivated to seek out books on their history. Count yourself seriously fortunate to be an Anglophone now, as many history books have been translated into English. Websites too, but try to target those written by non-anglophones to get the other point of view. A history of the Indian Mutiny, the French or Russian Revolutions, the Spanish conquistadores, the Opium Wars in China or even WWI that are written by Oxbridge scholars will not help much, because no matter how ‘even handed’ they pretend to be, they are always written from the perspective of the ‘green and pleasant land’. If England is the point of reference, then you’re being short changed. Remember that, too, when dismissing language studies as irrelevant for your children. It’s about as valuable a gift you can ever give them. It’s not always easy, but well worth it.
Featured image by Pixabay on Pexels.