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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

An Obnoxious Trend

Gosh, this is so fucking dumb, I can’t believe it:

The inability of too many Americans to learn or speak anything but English constitutes a foreign language “emergency” that could end up harming the economy and impairing U.S. foreign policy, according to a survey.

Only 20.7 percent of American adults can speak a foreign language — compared with 66 percent of all European adults who know more than one language.

I’m a foreign language speaker and a multilingual person but this article makes me angry because of its sheer dumbness. The only language those 80% of monolingual Americans speak just happens to be the current language of international communication. You don’t fucking need to speak anything else if you happen to be an English-speaker. The whole world is busy learning English. 

I’m all for learning foreign languages – obviously! – but I detest these panicky, link-baiting titles. Emergency! The end of the world! The Dutch are desperate to learn English, which we already fucking speak! Let’s all collapse in outrage. 

I’m also very much over this idiotic trend of wailing about how everything is SOOOOO superior in Europe. This has been going on for centuries, it’s tired and boring. Some things are better here, some there, and some others, elsewhere. Let’s stop with the dumb Europe-worship already.

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7 thoughts on “An Obnoxious Trend

  1. “Emergency” is hysterical, and there are lots of places more multilingual than Europe, but monolingualism should be a legitimate concern for monolingual Americans for at least two reasons:

    A) why hire a monolingual American when you can hire someone who speaks English and other languages?
    B) monolingual English speakers are actually some of the worst communicators in global English, because they don’t have the skills a multilingual does in understanding variation, avoiding local slang, etc.

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  2. Dreidel on said:

    When I was stationed in Europe, I got very tired of hearing some smug Europeans say, “Americans are dumb because they only speak English!”

    There’s actually a very good reason why most Americans are monolingual. Most Americans never leave the United States, or travel abroad only on short guided tours — and the ENTIRE huge United States, all the way from sea to shining sea, speaks the same language: English (or did so until fairly recently). So why should most Americans learn a second language that they’ll never use?

    If the people in adjacent states in the US all spoke different languages, the way the adjacent nations in Europe do, then Americans would learn multiple languages out of necessity — which is the real reason that Europeans learn them.

    (Yes, I know that there are good reasons to learn multiple languages — I speak three — but that’s not the point I’m making here.)

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  3. In marketing blogs, there’s a tendency to run hysterical headlines in order to get attention. The headlines I see are about “the death of ____.” (The blank never includes the phrase, “intelligent thought.” It should.)

    That said, there are problems with being monolinguistic. New Jersey is a case in point. An expensive state, those born here tend to go elsewhere. The entire population growth for most of the last decade are migrants from the Middle East and China. The public school district my kids attended has students who are native speakers of any of 38 languages other than English. I get emails such as “I need an insurance agent who speaks Tamil. Know anyone?”

    There are legitimate advantages to speaking other languages:

    (1) It’s valued by employers
    (2) It makes one more resistant to dementia in old age
    (3) It allows access to additional news media and literature.
    (4) It’s fun.

    Frankly, the US was never as monolinguistic as some would like to believe. At one point, there were more than 6,000 newspaper published in the US in languages other than English. The US always was the “melting pot” whether people like it or not. In some areas it still is. The areas where it’s not, largely the Midwest and Deep South, are largely stagnant and dying.

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    • Shakti on said:

      (1) It’s valued by employers
      Not in and of itself. If a field isn’t valuable by itself then “knowing x language” does not command a higher salary. For example, there aren’t that many Russian speakers in this area. Would you think someone who needed a receptionist who spoke fluent Russian would offer more money? Nope, they were offering $10/hr like many other receptionist jobs in small offices. There are a significant amount of Spanish speakers here, but Spanish speaking receptionists/paralegals and the like do not command significant premiums over monolingual ones.

      YMMV, of course.

      (2) It makes one more resistant to dementia in old age
      (3) It allows access to additional news media and literature.
      (4) It’s fun.

      2) is a definite advantage, but I don’t see people who are close minded caring about 3) or 4). They like the news sources they like and don’t want to look at new ones or ones that are difficult in any way. The O’Reilly “talking points” were brilliant because you didn’t even have to have good hearing or great reading skills to understand his daily rant. I ‘ve had friends who didn’t want to watch an international best seller because…it was subtitled. Working to understand entertainment is not considered fun by the vast majority of people. I’ve heard too many people flip out at accents to think that they’d consider mastery of another language and communicating with others fun.

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    • I wouldn’t say the Midwest is dying. The parts I’m seeing and have lived in (Illinois, Indiana and Missouri) look and feel a lot more prosperous than, say, Connecticut, Rhode Island or New Hampshire.

      I’m all for learning languages, of course. But I hate exaggeration and hysteria.

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  4. My take on this is basically Clarissa’s. America has the most hegemonic economy and speaks the most hegemonic language and can comfortably afford being a monolingual nation (which it isn’t literally, anyway). There’s a real downside to this, but it’s not an existential threat. I guess the operative words are “according to a survey.”

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  5. Anecdotal data: Americans have a bad rep in foreign language learning but I think it’s undeserved. Americans IME respect the idea of language learning they just have no idea how to carry it off most of the time. But when the motivation is there they do okay.
    At one point in Poland I about five Americans who had learned Polish well enough as adults to deal with Polish bureaucracy on their own. Okay, you need to know how weird the grammar of slavic languages is and what central-eastern european bureacracies are like to appreciate that but it’s impressive. I knew a similar number of Brits none of whom knew even survival Polish (and they were oddly proud of the fact). Brits (esp the English) seem to be against the idea of learning other languages on pinciple
    Travelling in Europe you quickly realize the British are probably the most incompetent communicators going (and they don’t realize how bad they are which doesn’t help).

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