Why Learn a Foreign Language? The Importance of Multilingualism and International Awareness Among Anglo-North Americans



It is no secret that English-speaking North Americans have a particularly high rate of monolingualism, especially when compared with their contemporaries in Asia and continental Europe, particularly Japan and Scandinavia. The cause of American monolingualism is a complex combination of personal attitudes and education. The tendency in America has been to reduce emphasis on the traditional imperative of multilingual education and personal development. However, as we continue into a century irrevocably characterized by wide-scale globalization, a deep and intuitive susceptibility to foreign languages, societies, and nations becomes an ever-increasing imperative.

What is the Cause of Anglo-North American Monolingualism?

As noted above, the American tendency to be monolingual is a complex and multifaceted issue. The most pervasive force perpetuating what has become an international stereotype (you may be familiar with the widespread jest: "What do you call someone who only speaks one language? An American!) is the fairly recent status of English as the international language of business, science, and tourism. It may interest you to learn, however, that French remains the international language of post. This is a legacy of the French language's status as the international language (particularly of law, government, and culture) before it was unseated by English in the twentieth century. In any case, the status of "international language" has fostered in the English-speaking world a sense of complacency as regards foreign languages, particularly in North America. On a global scale, English speakers lack the motivation to learn foreign languages because English is internationally spoken and accepted as a lingua franca, meaning that English speaking tourists and businesspeople enjoy, more than anyone else, the unique advantage of being able to communicate in their own language in a variety of linguistic and ethnic contexts.

How much do you consider your interest in foreign languages to be directly challenged by the global status of your native English?

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Even Americans with an interest in foreign languages often face a unique challenge, especially in Scandinavia, Germany, and the Netherlands, when they travel abroad to use and improve their language ability. The problem is that so many non-English speakers around the world are very interested in learning English and often opt to practice their English with native speakers, even with those who would rather practice the language of the country to which they have traveled (often for that explicit purpose). In short, the unyielding presence of the English language on an international scale tends to discourage English speakers from learning a foreign language, even those highly motivated to do so.


Throughout the early and mid-twentieth century, foreign language instruction was a heavily emphasized virtue in higher education, whose decline in emphasis throughout the twentieth century, by the way, is directly correlated with the increasingly pervasive status of English as the international language. Every American foreign language (other than French and German) grammar book that I have read from the era assumes that the student is already familiar with French and German vocabulary and grammar, and goes from there. While foreign language instruction is compulsory in many American high schools, graduation and acceptance into university programs is rarely predicated on any quantifiable proficiency in one or more foreign languages. Usually, foreign language knowledge is only required in specific circumstances, such as attending a French language university program in Canada. Compare with the situation of German high school students who must demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in English and one other foreign language in order to be accepted into most university programs. The details of this requirement vary of course, but the difference between American and European standards of foreign language instruction and retention is nonetheless marked.

The Problem with Complacency and Slipping Standards

From what I have outlined thus far, it seems counter-intuitive for English speakers to busy themselves with foreign languages when the rest of the world seems ready to cater to these prejudged monoglots. However, monolingual complacency in the face of the English language's privileged status is socially, politically, and intellectually detrimental and irresponsible.


As educational programs and national attitudes continue to downplay the importance of competence in foreign languages, America is setting itself up for a socio-political crisis should the linguistic zeitgeist shift.
As educational programs and national attitudes continue to downplay the importance of competence in foreign languages, America is setting itself up for a socio-political crisis should the linguistic zeitgeist shift. | Source

Do not forget that international lingua francas come and go, as we saw earlier with French. The unique status of the English language is primarily fueled by the international influence of the United States culturally, politically and, most importantly, economically. However, history has taught us nothing if not the capacity for sudden and unexpected economic and political shifts. The simple fact of the matter is that the sway of the United States can not always be counted on to uphold the influential supremacy of the English language. While empires do not (usually) crash and burn overnight, it still behooves Americans to be wary of national hubris, especially in light of the most recent economic recession. In all likelihood, English will remain the international language throughout the twenty-first century, however, educational policy and popular attitudes regarding the significance of multilingual capacities among the American population must not be allowed to slip as they already have. Even though the privileged status of English is not under any immediate threat, it is imperative that America maintain a multilingual and cosmopolitan outlook lest future generations suffer the consequences. What I mean is that lax multilingual standards are not as much of a threat to America in a world where English is the lingua franca, but they certainly are when we consider a future in which, for example, Mandarin Chinese, becomes the universally accepted lingua franca and Americans do not have the educational and ideological traditions necessary in order to adjust to such a potential shift in the linguistic zeitgeist.

Nationalism and xenophobia are easily conflated with racist sentiments. Foreign language competence promotes open-mindedness and critical thought.
Nationalism and xenophobia are easily conflated with racist sentiments. Foreign language competence promotes open-mindedness and critical thought. | Source

The Present Implications

The uncertain future of English's status as the lingua franca is not the only reason America has to reorient her thinking as regards foreign languages. A high proficiency in one or more foreign languages is directly correlated with a greater sensitivity to other cultures and societies. The United States in particular has a reputation for having a highly nationalist perspective and even a penchant for xenophobia, in particular as regards the Muslim world. It is true that America has enemies of which she ought to be wary, particularly in Muslim countries, but American nationalism can often lead to dangerously extreme xenophobic sentiments which can further harm America's already tenuous international reputation. Foreign language competence is a highly effective line of defense against unwarranted nationalist sentiment and can have a positive impact on diplomatic efforts to ease international tensions.

The Inherent Personal Advantages of Being Multilingual

In addition to the shared national benefits of multilingualism among American native English speakers, individuals who can communicate in one or more foreign languages are at a marked advantage over their monolingual contemporaries. All else being equal, American employers are statistically more likely to hire a bilingual or multilingual applicant over monolingual applicants. Furthermore, multilingualism expands an individual's social and intellectual opportunities.

How much do/would you value knowing one or more foreign languages?

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While English is widely learned as a second language in non-English speaking countries, the fact remains that there are still many people who do not know English. The casual tourist can easily get by in urban settings, but he or she would be missing out on the more profound opportunities of long-term residence abroad. Also, a little known fact in America, where university tuition has been going through the roof in recent decades with no sign of easing up and the student loan crisis whose status is critical, there are countries, such as Iceland and Germany, where even international students do not have to pay tuition fees! However, the prerequisite for matriculation is often fluency in the country's language. Not to be overlooked, of course, are the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism. People who know more than one language have a heightened IQ as a direct result of their foreign language proficiency and are also more adept than monolinguals at multitasking and abstract thought. Furthermore, a positive correlation has been found between multilingualism and the delayed onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Linguistic Breakdown of the United States as of 2009

Primary Language
Percent of Population
Other Indo-European
Asian and Pacific Island
Other Languages

In conclusion, the reasons why monolingualism is so endemic to North America are a combination of international language politics and national attitudes regarding foreign languages. This has resulted in the reduced presence of foreign language instruction in institutions of higher education, which in turn has exacerbated the situation. As I have demonstrated, the current North American state of affairs regarding foreign languages is detrimental to the nation's future political and diplomatic influence as well as to the intellectual and professional potential of the Anglo-American individual.

Comments 43 comments

mySuccess8 profile image

mySuccess8 23 months ago

Today there are over 7,000 languages being spoken worldwide. There are certainly many benefits of bilingualism or multilingualism over their monolingual contemporaries, as you have clearly explained. Some interesting facts from the website of “Northwestern University Global Languages Initiative”: 17% of Americans, 35% of Canadians, 56% of Europeans, and 66% of the world’s population are proficient in at least 2 languages. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 23 months ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

Thank you for this, you've given the reader lots of food for thought! Yes, the American people do have a reputation for 'staying at home' when it comes to learning foreign languages, as do many here in the UK it has to be said. English, being so prevalent, is a comfortable environment in which to park your brain it seems!

There's no doubt that education is the key. I don't know the figures for the USA but I'll bet foreign languages is not a priority in your schools - start them young and they will learn!!

The UK has been trying hard to change things, especially since we became part of the EU. For example, there have been mighty efforts to introduce French,German and Spanish into the school curriculum for 11-16 year olds. I studied French and German for four years, know a little Dutch and Spanish and have been to the continent many times. I think I'm atypical but many Brits now know the rudiments of say, French and Spanish.

It will take time, a few generations worth.

My sister-in-law did it the hard way. She's a southern girl from Savannah but ended up marrying a Dutch guy. She had to learn Dutch! And she's pretty good at it. People still turn their heads in Holland when she drawls out her Nederlands with a Georgia accent!

SheilaMilne profile image

SheilaMilne 23 months ago from Kent, UK

Learning a language does, I believe, have to start as early as possible. I had to learn Irish from the age of about 7 when the concept of a foreign language was a complete mystery to me, but when I went on to study French and German, it came a lot more easily. Starting as an adult with no previous experience of anything other than one's mother tongue must be incredibly difficult.

When I was living in France, our French teacher said she always had beginners classes for complete beginners and and others for "false" beginners. The false beginners were the ones who had to repeat the year, sometimes more than once, because they had never studied a foreign language and couldn't get their heads around the idea.

jupiter90 profile image

jupiter90 23 months ago

Being born and raised in America, I can truly say that multilingual education is not a priority here. Since, I was a young kid, I always wanted to learn Spanish and French. Unfortunately, I didn't get any foreign language instruction until I was in middle school; we received instruction in Spanish. However, the class was only 30 minutes. What could we possibly learn in a half hour? And that was short lived anyway.

After that, I didn't receive any language instruction until I was in college--one year of a foreign language was a requirement at my school. While I did excel in my Spanish classes, I still don't feel confident enough to carry out a conversation with a native Spanish speaker.

Yes, I do believe that if you want to raise a multilingual generation, you should start from young. Of course, learning a second language as an adult is very much possible, but it can be a challenge dealing with the conflicts of life. However, I am dedicated to being multilingual.

All in all, this was an excellent hub which I voted up.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 23 months ago from Taos, NM

A very interesting and thought-provoking article. I am a Spanish teacher so I understand how mono linguistic America is. I believe foreign language study should begin in pre-school/kindergarten and continue throughout a student's school career. ( through 12th grade). America is very isolated when it comes to learning other languages and tends to have the attitude that the rest of the world should learn English. Americans do not have the interest in learning about other cultures which is necessary in a global world. Congratulations on HOTD!

jeffryv profile image

jeffryv 23 months ago from Vancouver, BC Canada

I think your article should say USA, NOT North America as all Canadians learn French from grade 4 to grade 12. Canada is very much a bilingual country.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

Thank you for the additional statistics. The situation does seem to be better in Canada than in the United States, but among Anglo-Canadians, I have noticed that the tendency is to have less interest in foreign languages.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

The Dutch are particularly excited about foreigners who speak their language. I encountered that myself when I tried out some Dutch during my vacation in Amsterdam.

I had the United Kingdom in the back of my head while composing this article. I am aware that monolingualism among Anglo-Europeans is also prevalent for many of the same reasons as it is in the United States. However, I found it grounding to maintain an American perspective. The history of British imperialism would be a good subject to add to this topic.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

New science is telling us that the human brain maintains its plasticity throughout well into adult-hood and old age. Thus, adults are technically capable of learning a foreign language with no previous experience. It is a matter of attitude and habit that inhibits older people from opening their minds to their potential to learn foreign languages.

However, I do agree that early exposure to foreign languages is immensely helpful for those who seek multilingualism later in life.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

As long as you are dedicated, you will succeed in speaking another language. I did not start learning German until I took it as a minor subject in college, eventually taking an exchange year in Germany. With a combination of effort and determination, I was able to rewire my brain despite a lack of childhood multilingualism. I highly recommend immersing yourself in a Spanish speaking environment. That is what really made my language study a success.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

It is true that the United States is at a marked disadvantage in terms of multilingual environment when compared with continental Europe. What I find important is that Anglo-Americans recognize the rich presence of other languages around them in their own country, especially Spanish (as well as French and even German, in certain regions). There is potential in America for a more "European" outlook on foreign languages, I think.

Melissa Sewell profile image

Melissa Sewell 23 months ago from North Carolina

This is a very informational Hub. I am actually in the process of learning a few different languages. Of course, my primary is English, but I have also been dabbling with French, I have studied German with an actual German family, I have learned some Spanish from multiple Spanish-speaking individuals, and I also have Rosetta Stone for Russian which I have been trying to practice every day or so. So I can definitely appreciate the contents of this article. Thanks for sharing!

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

I think you are correct in your thinking. I am Canadian as well and was at first dubious about including Canada under the North American Umbrella term. However, my focus is on Anglo-North Americans. In Canada, there is a much higher rate of French/English bilingualism amongst native French speakers than amongst native English speakers. Although French education is compulsory in schools, I found from my own experience, and that of others, that French education in Canadian high schools tends to fall under the multilingual standards of schools in a country such as Germany. Of course, that is not the case everywhere, but a notable tendency nonetheless.

Yes, Canada is more bilingual than the United States. However, I feel that there is a monolignual mentality amongst many Anglo-Canadians comparable to that of their American contemporaries.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

German and French are very worth your wile. You will notice, as an English speaker, that German and French each have striking similarities to English. German because English and German both originate from Indo-Germanic, and French because of the incredible influence French had over English during the Norman Conquest. Unfortunately, I do not know Spanish, but I hope to start learning soon. Russian is very difficult. I find that it takes an immense effort to just learn each new word, and the grammar is very complex. I am going to keep at it though, and I hope you do too :)

François Maçon 23 months ago

I think that there is a very strong impression prevalent throughout Europe and many other parts of the world that America is the most poorly educated country, certainly in terms of its place in global history, languages and multiculturalism. It seems, from reading this article, that this impression is borne out by the statistics, also.

This is no fault of the American people, of course, who have such limited resources and opportunity in this regard. Unfortunately, this ignorance (I use the word literally and without intending offense) does so frequently come across as arrogance and disregard. America has such a poor reputation in the rest of the world and it is such a shame.

However, I think that articles such as this one may help to encourage a change in attitudes and action which will bring the pouting, self-obsessed adolescent that is America back into a sensible, communicative and mature relationship with the rest of the global family.

Education is the key: Scientific education to combat religious fundamentalism, which is as rife and dangerous in its Christian manifestation in America as is the Islamic version in the Middle East; Historical, Geographical and Social education to combat the isolationism, introspection and cultural ignorance so prevalent on that continent; education in world languages, literature and so on.

It is a shame that America has so isolated itself from its origins and its global community. I imagine this, combined with national pride and paranoia is at the root of America's current slide into obscurity on the global scale.

Perhaps it is inevitable. Perhaps, like a dinosaur, it has simply grown to big and too cumbersome to adapt?

But I have now digressed somewhat from the content of this article. Yes, I think that language education and international communication from the earliest school would benefit America, open her mind and heart to all the joys of family life which she misses, locked in her own room, convincing herself of her own fantasies, frightened of the outside world and refusing to speak.

This is one man's opinion from what you charmingly and erroneously refer to as 'The Old World.' There is, in fact, only one world - and my part of it is as current as yours.

I wish you all a very good day and, in the circumstances, make no apology if my English is not perfected as yet!

Bob 23 months ago

I would disagree in one aspect. A large percentage of the U.S. population holds a college degree of some sort (maybe 35%) and most degrees require one year of basic non-English language classes. That plus the wide variety of people who live here provides exposure in the workplace, etc.

So even if they cannot speak a second language, most Americans are familiar with multiculturalism. I personally think that making English out official language would help immigrants learn it faster and help maintain a common "American" culture.

Unfortunately, killing off "American" culture is part of the plan (not yours but by many).

SheilaMilne profile image

SheilaMilne 23 months ago from Kent, UK

I certainly agree that the human brain maintains its plasticity well into adulthood and old age, otherwise I'd be wasting my time learning Russian at my advanced age. However to be truly bilingual or multilingual, you do have to start at a much younger age. They used to say it had to be before the age of 16 but recently I think I read they now advocate even earlier.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

Many Germans I have spoken with would disagree if I insisted I was not truly bilingual because I started learning German at age 18. From what I have read, it seems that starting a language as a young child is only a sure way to speak without an accent. However, a slight accent should not decide whether someone is bilingual or not. My primary goal in my pursuit of foreign languages is not perfection, rather effective communication.

Aneegma profile image

Aneegma 23 months ago

Interesting hub. I do find that people who live in monolingual societies tend not be very interested in learning languages. I myself can speak 7 languages fluently (English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Greek, Arabic, Portuguese and Hebrew) only because I travel a lot worldwide so I took it upon myself to learn these languages. Congrats on HOTD. Very well written.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

Wow, congratulations on your linguistic success :) That must have taken a lot of effort and discipline. People like you show just how feasible it is to learn at least one other language. Anyone of healthy intellectual facility (which is the overwhelming American majority) can learn a foreign language, it's just a matter of attitude.

Thelma Alberts profile image

Thelma Alberts 23 months ago from Germany

What a very informative hub! Learning different kinds of languages helps when traveling and being able to communicate with other language speaking people. I had to learn German in my adopted country Germany as I live here for more than 30 years. Congrats on the HOTD!

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

Thank you for your comment! German is such a beautiful language. It is my strongest second language and the closest to my heart :)

aesta1 profile image

aesta1 23 months ago from Ontario, Canada

We see this in our experience in the countries we live in. Because people want to practice their English with us, there is hardly any compelling reason to learn the local language. Here in Hanoi, many young kids learn not just English but other languages. as they need this for employment.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

The problem seems to be that Anglo-North Americans typically have to have a particular, specialized reason to learn a foreign language, and people with such a reason are inevitably in the minority.

aziasaaa profile image

aziasaaa 23 months ago from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I don't live in America but I now feel the need to take up French back. I've been putting it off too long.

7,000 languages? I can only speak two. Got to learn more I guess.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

7,000 languages sure is a lot. I wouldn't worry too much about learning THAT many, haha. Still, knowing a handful can come in, well, handy :)

Dip Mtra profile image

Dip Mtra 23 months ago from World Citizen

Very relevant topic. India is the largest English-speaking nation in the world, based purely on its population. Thanks for writing a brilliant article.

Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 23 months ago from Oklahoma

Cool Hub! Congratulations on HOTD!

Understanding languages is integral to understanding cultures.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

I also find India fascinating for how overwhelmingly multilingual it is.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

I couldn't have said it better myself.

ratnaveera profile image

ratnaveera 23 months ago from Cumbum

At least we can learn 9 languages in our life that interested and seem easy for us. First of all learning other languages may be a great training for our brain and it would be very helpful to improve our career in our life. For the past one year I have been learning German. Though it is very difficult to learn, I am really much interested with its unique grammar rules. Thanks for presenting this wonderful Hub! Spongy0llama

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

Yes, German certainly does have a unique set of grammar rules. It is my first second language and I am very glad I put the effort in to learn it thoroughly. Keep at it, it's definitely worth it when you can fully understand the range of expression the complex case system offers.

ShirleyJCJohnson profile image

ShirleyJCJohnson 23 months ago from Sallisaw, OK

I took four years of French in high school, lived in Germany as a kid due to my father being in the U.S. Army so picked up some German, several of my kids take Spanish in their classes, here at home where I home school we are learning sign language and hope to start some Latin.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 23 months ago from Canada Author

The stereotype that all or the vast majority of Americans is very unfortunate when in fact many people, such as yourself, have a lot of exposure to, and understanding of, foreign languages. The problem is that so many English speakers are intimidated by how ubiquitous English is abroad and have difficulty taking full advantage of their foreign language knowledge.

ShirleyJCJohnson profile image

ShirleyJCJohnson 23 months ago from Sallisaw, OK

I never thought, when I was a teenager in high school, that it was so difficult to learn any French, or German when I was a kid. Even the Latin I'm trying to learn is so similar in its roots to English words we have for today. For example: in English, the following words: entrance, introduce and introduction; in Latin, intro (long o) I enter.

sara 20 months ago

English is one of the most important languages in the world. It can even be said to be the single most important language.Other languages are important too

Princessa profile image

Princessa 20 months ago from France

We are a multilingual family and even though my children are still rather young I can see many advantages of having raised them multilingual. For a start travelling in Europe is a delight as we manage to communicate in some of the local languages which in turn give us a better knowledge of the place we visit. At school it has also helped my children to learn other languages that were completely foreign to them like German and Latin. And this are just some of the advantages, I could keep going without finding any disadvantage.

Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 20 months ago from Canada Author

Which languages do you speak in your family?

Princessa profile image

Princessa 20 months ago from France

We all speak French in everyday life as we live, work and study in France. Me and the children speak Spanish between us when we are alone or with my family. We all speak English when we are with the children's dad and his family. Because we like travelling to Italy we have picked up a lot of Italian with my daughter, enough to understand others. And my daughter has been learning German and Latin at school for a few years now.

dillinvc 18 months ago from Cincinnati, OH

Help me teach English in France and come back to the USA to teach French ! Please!

lidialbuquerque profile image

lidialbuquerque 15 months ago

Congrats on your hub! It's very interesting and I agree with you! Multilingualism has an array of advantages and it can undoubtedly open many doors. Thanks for this great read!

tranthanhlam profile image

tranthanhlam 15 months ago from Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam

I always want to learn new language but i don't have time :(

rjbatty profile image

rjbatty 11 months ago from Irvine

Very nicely stated. Here in California one cannot escape learning some amount of Spanish because of the high rate of Mexican immigrants. You just pick it up unconsciously. And it's sort of "cool" to flow between English and Spanish. I can't read a French menu, but I can do pretty well with dishes presented in a Mexican restaurant.

My wife is Russian and sadly I've picked up very little of the language. The fact that they use a cyrillic alphabet doesn't make the chore any easier. I once gained a weak understanding of cyrillic, which made my visit to Russia a tad easier -- at least I could read most of their airport signs (not presented in English, French or any other language) as would be customary in most international airports. But, the language is difficult. Being an English major and having actually read the entire Webster's dictionary from cover to cover, I feel embarrassed about making mistakes. So, I'm reluctant about learning a foreign language. I'm used to having a command of the language, and being in a foreign country (such as Russia) made me feel exceedingly uncomfortable. Happily, when I visited Helsinki, most of the teens were conversant in English, and I felt much more at ease. I still feel as if I am learning English. Occasionally, I come across a word that escapes me.

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