By Taylor Marvin
In a recent piece for Thought Catalog, Chelsea Fagan criticizes Americans’ poor foreign language skills. Under a headline deeming American’s monolingualism “embarrassing,” Fagan argues that learning another language has never been more convenient, foreign language ability opens individuals’ eyes to the world, and that Americans are mocked by foreigners comfortable in many languages. Many of Fagan’s points are correct — bilingualism does widen horizons and broaden perspectives, and is of course essential to aspiring specialists in a variety of fields — but the argument that Americans’ second language abilities are some glaring flaw ignores both economic realities and the intersection between foreign languages and privilege.
While millions of immigrants bring their native languages to US society, English is overwhelmingly the working language of American culture and the main language of 80 percent of Americans. Roughly 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English in the home, and though it is difficult to say exactly how many Americans speak a second language, a 2001 poll found that a quarter of Americans can hold a conversation in a language other than English.
Most ordinary Americans find English alone adequate for their daily lives — the key word being “ordinary”; language skills and area studies in the military, diplomatic and intelligence services, and development field is another question. Americans’ second language skills compare poorly to regions highlighted by multilingualism boosters. Looking only at English, the English Proficiency Index rates much of northern Europe as very high or highly proficient in English (though note that there are caveats about this measure), and second-language English speakers are increasingly common around the world.
But of course, a simple comparison between Americans and the perception of multilingual Europeans ignores the simple fact that English is increasingly the global common language. While French was the language of 18th and 19th century diplomacy and German of late 19th century international science, the global reach of the British Empire and then United States has given English an unprecedented international presence: while English has roughly three and a half million native speakers, nearly two billion people have a useful command of it. In many societies, English is the second language to learn, and brings enormous practical benefits; Fagan is correct when she notes that “speaking two language is the bare minimum in so many places,” and that second language is often English. In many globalized fields like international business, science, and academia English is fast becoming mandatory — an imperative that many academics from Brazil, where English proficiency is not common, seeking to teach and study abroad are learning the hard way. In many other multilingual societies, bilingualism is mandated by the legacy of colonially-imposed multiethnic states that necessitate a common — and often colonial — lingua franca.
In contrast, there is no single second language for Americans to learn, and, most importantly, the majority of Americans don’t have to. This is a powerful disincentive, which extends to other English-speaking countries: “The incentive to step outside the comfort of the mother tongue is weak when you already speak the world’s lingua franca,” admits even the pro-second language British Council. Though multilingual Americans enjoy a small earnings premium, it’s telling that most of the benefits of learning other languages that Fagan lists are more focused on self-improvement than immediate practicality. Broadening perceptions, better understanding foreign news, increased opportunities to travel, and reading literature in the original language are all valuable, but it’s reasonable that many Americans working or studying forty hour weeks judge them not worth the time commitment foreign language competency requires. It’s certainly not embarrassing that their priorities — or more concretely, what they choose to do with their free time — are not the same as Fagan’s.
Ultimately it is simplistic to compare Americans’ second language proficiency with that of a selection of bilingual societies. Bi or trilingualism is common in northern Europe because the small overall number of, say, Swedish or Dutch speakers mandates English proficiency, and many northern European societies are functionally bilingual, which allows parents and society at large to pass on second languages at a young age. In other regions English proficiency is increasingly common because the language brings immediate economic benefits. The life-affirmation rewards Fagan lists simply cannot compare to these tangibles — as the lack of, I imagine, Argentines learning Russian to read Tolstoy illustrates.
If Americans fail to learn foreign languages it is not because they are somehow less worthy or innately open-minded than Europeans, but instead because of demographics and social structures difficult for individuals to overcome. Non-Americans who mock monolingual Americans are as misguided and narrow-minded as Americans who demean Europeans’ lack of a dozen aircraft carriers.
The relationship between privilege and bilingualism and language more generally is complex: native bilingualism in the Untied States is associated with racial discrimination; bilingualism and European lingua francas in the developing world are often integrally linked with the legacy of colonialism; the globalizing benefits of the international English requirement in technical professions is a product of American hegemony. But despite this relationship, Fagan’s list of the benefits of multilingualism are grounded in economic privilege. Brushing up on Portuguese for an upcoming trip to Portugal is great — but many, many Americans will never have the disposable income for international travel, much less the time to invest in acquiring a second language, particularly one not widely spoken in the US. Studying abroad, immersion often essential to second language proficiency, is unavailable to many American college students from working class households. The online language learning program Duolingo is a great, free resource, but it is no surprise many overworked and underpaid members of the American middle class don’t choose to spend their evenings studying French, or place as much value on personally breaking the stereotype of the monolingual American — stereotype-breaking that is, essentially, a luxury.
Just as proficiency in English in other societies is often tied to economic and social status, Americans’ monolingualism is linked to the global English-speaking privilege that lessens the incentives to learn other languages. American would be a better, more inclusive place if more of its citizens spoke foreign languages, but it isn’t embarrassing that comparatively few Americans buy the luxury good of a second language.