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Map Quest

By J Square Humboldt

Historians teach that the USA emerged from its isolationist ways when it entered World War I...

Geography teachers may dispute that point.

Whenever an American media outlet wants to re-emphasize the issue, they merely find one of many studies that show a significant percentage of high school students can't locate major foreign cities or countries on a map. The inference is that, no matter what the foreign policy, the average American citizen doesn't know or doesn't care about much of the world beyond his borders.

If that's the case, I guess the average American viewer can't get any more confused when NBC follows the international 'corporate line' and promotes the Winter Olympics as being based in Torino.

Americans speak English. In their language, the name of the city is Turin.

Somewhere in the past, cultures have seen fit to customize geographic names for reasons known only to them at the time. Perhaps it was a 'pronunciation' issue or a translation matter. Whatever the origin, it's well-established. For example, the Germanic countries know the Empire of the Franks --- Frankreich, in their language --- is called France by those who live there. The French know their northeastern neighbors call their home country Deutschland and the English call that same country Germany, but to them, it's Allemagne. Lesser-populated countries see their homeland re-christened in even more versions; Sverige to its inhabitants is Sweden, Su'de, Schweden to others. For the collection of Alpine cantons that has become a banking capital to the world, citizens there acknowledge their multiple cultures and recognize their own government --- collectively and distinctly --- as Switzerland, Suisse, Schweiz and Svizzera.

Their city names are affected, too. The list is long, so we'll only cite two examples in that category, in German, French and English:

Genf - Gen"ve - Geneva

Wien - Vi"nne - Vienna

The Europeans are accustomed to this. None of them attempt to put on airs and use a version of a name that is out of its cultural context. They know that to do so sounds absolutely silly.

Such diversity is part of their immediate life.

Decisions are less logical and more simplistic on the other side of the Atlantic. I can only imagine that NBC's promotional staff thinks the Italian version of the Italian city's name just sounds cooler than the English version. Or, perhaps they don't want to get into a religious angle when any American who actually has heard of Turin only thinks of the mysterious Shroud that is kept in safekeeping by the Catholic diocese there. Their rationalization is that it doesn't matter what version of the city's name they use, all their viewers will know is that it has lots of mountains, it has sufficient snow and ice to host the Winter Olympics, and it isn't in the USA.

Now, this may seem to be a pedantic comment, but it underscores two longstanding complaints I have about the American educational perspective:

1. Measurements of comprehension are done by standardized testing, which is useless, and

2. The only time most Americans show any inclination to being 'international' --- without an army on its way somewhere --- is when they try to make a faux impression.

All that happens with the former is that teachers have simply resorted to 'teach to the test' in order to move students along. It's hard to blame them. Funds for education are almost always lacking. The social stigma against students who don't pass to the next level often has greater repercussions in their lives than it should, and there are many students who simply don't 'test' well, which means teachers need to spend more time coaching them to the method as opposed to the material. The net effect is that students not only never really grasp the content of the lesson, they also don't grasp the context of the lesson outside of a test environment. No personal relevance results in no educational retention.

The latter is a lingering effect of the general American populace being under the impression that the world is at its beck and call. Thus, there is no urgency for them to concern themselves about its nuances.

For their part, I suppose the best NBC can expect to do is convey that Turin is in northern Italy, amidst the Alps. Hopefully, they won't have to underscore that it's in Europe, and that Europe is on the other side of the Atlantic.

There won't be a test on it later, but when someone somewhere in the USA eventually does so, or when the topic arises in a real-world situation, I'm sure it will be in English.

So will the correct response.

About The Author
Copyright 2006 - The Longer Life Group

J Square Humboldt is the featured columnist at the Longer Life website, which is dedicated to providing information, strategies, analysis and commentary designed to improve the quality of living. His page can be found at and his observations are published three times per week.

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