AMERICANS are often told that in today’s globalized world, we are at a competitive disadvantage because of our lazy monolingualism. “For too long, Americans have relied on other countries to speak our language,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the Foreign Language Summit in 2010. “But we won’t be able to do that in the increasingly complex and interconnected world.”
The widespread assumption is that few Americans speak more than one language, compared with citizens of other nations — and that we have little interest in learning to speak another. But is this true?
Since 1980, the United States Census Bureau has asked: “Does this person speak a language other than English at home? What is this language? How well does this person speak English?” The bureau reports that as of 2009, about 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home. This figure is often taken to indicate the number of bilingual speakers in the United States.
But a moment’s reflection reveals that the bureau’s question about what you speak at home is not equivalent to asking whether you speak more than one language. I have some proficiency in Spanish and was fluent in Mandarin 20 years ago. But when the American Community Survey (an ongoing survey from the Census Bureau) arrived in my mailbox last month, posing that question, I had to answer no, because we speak only English in my home.
I know I’m not alone. There are countless Americans who speak languages other than English outside their homes: not just those of us who have learned other languages in school or through living abroad, but also employers who have learned enough Spanish to speak to their employees; workers in hospitals, clinics, courts and retail stores who have picked up parts of another language to make their jobs easier; soldiers back from Iraq or Afghanistan with some competency in Arabic, Pashto or Dari; third-generation kids studying their heritage language in informal schools on weekends; spouses and partners picking up the language of a loved one’s family; enthusiasts learning languages with computer software like Rosetta Stone. None of the above are identified as bilingual by the Census Bureau’s question.
Every census in the United States since 1890 (except for one, in 1950) has asked about language characteristics, and its question has always seemed to assume that English is the only language relevant for the aspects of life that take place outside the home. This assumption, though outdated, is somewhat understandable. After all, the bureau’s primary goal in asking this question is not to paint a full and complete portrait of the language proficiencies of Americans but rather to track immigrants’ integration into mainstream American society and to ascertain what services they need, and in what languages. (In October, for instance, the Census Bureau released a list of jurisdictions with large numbers of voters who need voting instructions translated in a language other than English.)
Nonetheless, to better map American language abilities, the census should ask the same question that the European Commission asked in its survey in 2006: Can you have a conversation in a language besides your mother tongue? (The answer, incidentally, dented Europe’s reputation as highly multilingual: only 56 percent of the respondents, who tended to be younger and more educated, said they could.) Until the census question is refined, claims about American monolingualism will almost certainly be overstated.
The celebrated multilingualism of not just Europe but also the rest of the world may be exaggerated. The hand-wringing about America’s supposed linguistic weakness is often accompanied by the claim that monolinguals make up a small worldwide minority. The Oxford linguist Suzanne Romaine has claimed that bilingualism and multilingualism “are a normal and unremarkable necessity of everyday life for the majority of the world’s population.”
But the statistics tell a murkier story. Recently, the Stockholm University linguist Mikael Parkvall sought out data on global bilingualism and ran into problems. The reliable numbers that do exist cover only 15 percent of the world’s 190-odd countries, and less than one-third of the world’s population. In those countries, Mr. Parkvall calculated (in a study not yet published), the average number of languages spoken either natively or non-natively per person is 1.58. Piecing together the available data for the rest of the world as best he could, he estimated that 80 percent of people on the planet speak 1.69 languages — not high enough to conclude that the average person is bilingual.
Multilinguals may outnumber monolinguals, but it’s not clear by how much. The average American may be no more monolingual or less multilingual than any other average person elsewhere on the planet. At the very least, we can’t say for sure — not in any language.
Speak American: Be multilingual
The Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial in January stirred up conversation about whether or not English is, or should be, the true “American” language. While this is not a new conversation, it is a valid one nonetheless.
The United States of American was founded to be a nation of freedom for all peoples from the start; since then, we have struggled to define our national linguistic identity. This has presented a constant cultural crisis that every generation must decide how to cope with in its own way.
Looking back, the U.S. has defined its culture by pushing “American” culture, including the English language, on everyone. Some people think that this is still necessary. But now we’re in a time where being multi-lingual is highly valued throughout the world. It shouldn’t be any different here in the U.S.
In the past, America dealt with this issue by defaulting to the language spoken by a majority of people, or by the people with the most power. Either way, that language was English. I think this was their natural tendency and not necessarily a bad thing; uniting all citizens under a common language makes communication a lot easier for sectors like government, legal processes, education, health care industries and the business world. But, I also think how the nation went about that uniting process, forcing English on Native Americans and immigrants while degrading their native languages, could be a bad thing.
However, in the last half-century or so, with the emphasis on equality, the coming of technology, the new value seen in diversity and the rise of “global citizenship,” we’ve arrived at the place to change that and decide once again how we are going to cope.
So, let’s throw some stats into the picture. The U.S. Census Bureau published the results of their American Community Survey, “Language Use in the United States: 2011″ in August 2013. It found that 20 percent of Americans spoke a language other than English in the home. Of that 20 percent, approximately 78 percent spoke English “very well” or “well” in addition to their native language. It should be noted that this survey was taken of people aged 5 and over, so some survey members may not have even been enrolled in public school, yet.
The same report also found that though the Spanish language has had the largest increase in the number of speakers from 2000-11, its 34 percent increase of speakers was nothing compared to the 115 percent increase of South Asian language speakers. Let these statistics dispel any notion that one single culture is trying to “overrun” any other culture, or that the majority of immigrants don’t know English or aren’t willing to learn. That is simply not factually correct.
There are societal benefits to knowing English. Speaking English can present many opportunities in today’s world; it has become the global language of business and having that skill as a native or fluent speaker is very valuable in the growing global community.
Having a common language- English- as a uniting force in the U.S. is not a bad thing – it makes the gears of government and economy run more smoothly. But on top of that, it serves as a way to unite the nation and give all the cultures a common medium to share their stories with each other. It gives Americans of all backgrounds the opportunity to experience the world without ever having to buy a passport or even (lightbulb!) learn another language.
That being said, why shouldn’t people want to learn other languages? Being proficient in two or more languages is even more valued in the global community. Having interviewed several international students over the past three years, I’ve learned that many developed countries make learning second, third and even fourth languages a requirement in their school systems. Because of that background, I think many immigrants come to the U.S. with the perspective of wanting their children to be bi-lingual or multi-lingual; it can certainly be advantageous. It’s time the rest of us catch up.
It’s time we value the variety of cultures in our nation as an opportunity for great learning and sharing. Coca-Cola put out a “Behind the Scenes” video for their controversial commercial and in it, one of the interviewees stated, “We don’t get to pick and choose whether America should be diverse or not, it is diverse.” It’s time we recognize that our nation is not defined by English, but by its people and all the beautiful stories they bring with them.
So, we’ve come to a time to choose. It’s time we choose to say yes to continuing to teaching English in schools and using it as our primary language, but not as a way to replace other languages. Instead, it should be used as a way to unite them.