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.
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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.
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.
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.
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
Percent of Population
Asian and Pacific Island
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.