Monolingual USA?

The other day I found an interesting article in the New York Times about monolingualism and multilingualism in the USA and elsewhere. There’s a widespread belief that most Americans are monolingual in English, and that elsewhere it’s common for people to know two or more languages. The article asks whether this belief is true.

The question about language in the US census focuses on language use at home and doesn’t ask about use of languages other than English elsewhere, and the writer points out that many Americans who speak foreign languages speak only English at home, so for the purposes of the census they are monoglot English speakers. According to the 2009 census, for example, 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home. The aim of the census is not to discover people’s foreign language skills, but to “track immigrants’ integration into mainstream American society and to ascertain what services they need, and in what languages”, so this is understandable.

The writer suggests that a better question would be “Can you have a conversation in a language besides your mother tongue?”, which was asked in a survey by the European Commission in 2006 – 56% of those who completed that survey answered yes. So perhaps the assumption that bilingualism and multilingualism are normal and unremarkable in much or the world is not entirely true. There are no reliable figures on this anyway, so it’s impossible to be sure. The conclusion is that Americans may be no more or less multilingual than people in other countries.

4 thoughts on “Monolingual USA?

  1. Nice assessment. As an American, I’ve long felt that American foreign-language skills are much better than our reputation would suggest. Foreign-language study was mandatory in all the high schools (= “secondary schools”) and universities that I attended. And almost all of my friends can have at least simple conversations in at least one language other than English.

    I think the problem is that there is so little opportunity to practice in most of the U.S.: English is ubiquitous, and the English skills of immigrants are so good, in general, that conversations naturally fall to English. Practicing in another language takes concerted effort (and sometimes patience on the part of the native speaker of that language). I routinely make that effort, but most Americans simply don’t bother — then lament that their language skills decline over the years. After a while, they fear they’ve forgotten too much, and no longer try at all.

    The wording of the census is especially troubling: I can carry on at least a simple conversation in seven languages besides English, and a reasonably sophisticated conversation in three (not including English) — and I try to bolster these skills at every opportunity. But those opportunities don’t arise at home, as no one in my family retains very good language skills. So, apparently, I would be considered a monoglot!

  2. It’s quite simple, in my impression: For Anglophones, the need to learn a foreign language is much less pressing than for native speakers of other languages. This is doubly true for Americans, who live in a vast country where almost everyone speaks English, but I doubt the situation in, say, Australia or the UK is much different. Even if school curricula do emphasise foreign language learning more, the absence of any practical need means that most people do not retain their knowledge for more than a few years after graduation.

  3. The opportunity for practice varies depending on where you are. I chose Spanish in high school specifically because I was living in California, in an area with a high number of Spanish-speaking* immigrants, and I figured that was the language most likely to be useful to me. And I have indeed used it on occasion to communicate with people who did not speak much English.

    Then again, I picked Japanese in college just because I wanted to study something non-Indo-European, and had no idea how useful it was going to turn out to be someday…

    *I specifically mean “Spanish-speaking” and not “immigrants whose native language is Spanish”– immigration to the US from Latin America comes disproportionately from indigenous communities, meaning a great many “Hispanic” immigrants actually are speaking Spanish as a second language. (Not that I knew that in high school, though.)

  4. Nah, it’s pretty normal for American Anglophones to know just a few memorized phrases after years of high-school Spanish. The most important factor here is early language teaching; schools in a couple of other Western countries manage to get their students fluent in at least one or two foreign languages without any outside input or practice.

    It just depends on how much of a priority that is and how much time you are willing to dedicate to it; it’s just not a priority in the US. (Britain isn’t that different, especially since you don’t have to take a foreign language for your GCSE anymore.) Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

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