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Americans Shouldn’t Be Embarrassed For “Only” Speaking English

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.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for your interesting post. Even though I find it sometimes irritating how naturally Americans here in Berlin expect Germans to communicate in English with them, I agree with your argumentation. I think language skills are just not that valued in the US. It doesn’t mean that Americans are less interested in other cultures.

    March 25, 2014
    • I have never been to Germany, but even if I was traveling there I would find it hard to justify taking the time to learn German. Even though German is a major, widely-spoken language, with only 100 million speakers, many of whom speak English, it’s simply difficult for an American to justify unless they have specific ties to German culture.

      Thanks for your comment.

      March 25, 2014
  2. just wanted to leave you a quick note and tell you that I couldn’t agree more with your standpoint.
    I *was* an avid language learner, and spent time abroad in both Ecuador and China to learn the respective languages, but quickly realized the impracticality of studying foreign languages as a whole when compared to other academic pursuits. Reasons like personal enrichment aside, the applicability to career advancement and job opportunities I find much more limited than what we’re led to believe. For example, China IS on par with the US in global power status, and therefore there has been, in recent years, an uptick in interest in learning Chinese. Natural enough, right? The thing is, while Chinese culture and literature are fascinating and are well worth themselves the elbow grease needed to study Chinese, in a business setting, Chinese just isn’t that useful because long-entrenched cultural assumptions held by the Chinese themselves about the “godliness” of their language render it almost impossible for a non-native to use Chinese vis-a-vis English. I’m not saying you won’t gain any use out of it, but I’ve found that the Chinese are perfectly content with learning English and having the full burden of communication rest upon their shoulders, so long as they can keep YOU out of their arcane circle that is the Chinese language.
    But you bring up another great point – languages are freakin’ hard, especially to study them up to a proficient and (my most abhorred word) fluent level. The fact also stands, that English is a butt-easy language compared to other languages. Its easiness wasn’t, admittedly, the main reason for its adoption as the global lingua franca, supplanting the role France had enjoyed for many years, but the lower difficulty needed gave and still gives it staying power. We already lag far behind the other industrialized nations, as well as emerging powers, in science and technology fields, whose importance I acknowledge none too begrudgingly. For us native English-speakers, practically any other language out there is tough going (even the ones like Romance languages rated easiest on the Foreign Service scale) and requires many hours put into it to learn adequately. There simply are too many other skills that are more worth our while to learn, especially when we already speak the lingua franca that won’t live in jeopardy of being replaced anytime soon.
    Again, great post. Wholeheartedly agree with it.

    July 14, 2015
  3. Marco #

    Basically, an apology of monolingualism in the name of the God English.
    Pathetic and sad.
    Americans still remain lazy and complacent learners when it comes down to other languages. Not to mention their complete ignorance of other cultures and languages.
    Ridiculous article.

    August 8, 2015
    • Ok, some heavy articulations here.

      Americans, as an ethnolinguistic group, are incredibly hard to define. In general, America divides itself into two groups, that of rural and urban America, with the suburbs as the middle ground. Many Americans reside in smaller towns whose general area they have never left, and so, therefore, it is expected that they should not be too familiar with cultures from across the world. By the same token, many Americans do have great exposure to diversity, as our cities are some of the most variegated ethnically in the world. I’ve traveled a lot, and have found that many cultures that I’ve even the faintest notions of have little to no knowledge of other cultures besides their own and generalities of the Western world.

      The author’s reasons for our “complacency” make sense – learning languages is HARD work, and its immediate professional benefits are dubious at best, and given that economic reasons propel many of our choices, it’s natural that we should first spend our time going down more instantly lucrative avenues. Speaking the lingua franca is simply the reality many are accustomed.

      I, myself, love learning languages and have managed to achieve high levels in tongues from different linguistic families, like Spanish, Mandarin, and Turkish. Visiting those countries and communicating with the citizenry often nets me the same reaction to their finding out I’m studying their language: confusion. Many of the world’s citizens find it themselves a “pointless endeavor” to study their language, and, in fact, any language. (i.e.: What’s the point? Knowing English is good enough). They do appreciate it, yes, but there also exists a lot of linguistic snobbery, too: They like the novelty value of you “trying” to learn their language, but come down to any real exchange (business, governmental), they are well loath to speaking their language with you. It often becomes a battle just to maintain the conversation up in the target language, an exhausting one, to boot, that it should come as no surprise that many people, having achieved a decent conversational level in the language, should give up and just resort to speaking English.

      my 2c

      August 26, 2015
      • Thanks for your thoughts. I enjoy learning languages as well, and the point I was trying to make in this article (which you suggest as well) is that I’m wary of assigning a moral value to what’s essentially a hobby.

        Math is a useful skill, and America would probably be a better place if everyone was good at it, but I’m not going to say that those who aren’t naturally gifted at math or practice it in their spare time are somehow lazy or uncultured. I see languages the same way.

        August 27, 2015
        • Indeed. That’s an excellent approach to viewing the study of languages. Proficiency in a foreign tongue is not a prerequisite to a comprehension of and sensitivity to foreign cultures, and their differences with our own. While it may seem unfair to place the onus on non-native English speakers to learn the Anglo tongue, they seem perfectly eager and willing to carry it, from my experience dealing with various peoples worldwide.

          August 27, 2015

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