I have earned two degrees studying other cultures, traveled to many different countries all over the world, worked in a culturally diverse school, and studied three languages in my life. Despite these experiences, I am helplessly monolingual. I deeply value linguistic diversity and the importance of bilingualism and multiculturalism, but I have been unable, or unwilling, to achieve proficiency in any second language myself. This is no one’s fault but my own, but I do think it is worthwhile to look at the cause of my monolingual dilemma, especially since I know I am not along in this predicament. Americans are notorious around the world for being incredibly linguistically inept, despite high levels of education. Why? The following list is not meant to be an excuse for my language deficit, but a look at possible causes for the glut of monoglots in the United States.
English as dominant global language
Why learn a foreign language when most of the world is rushing to learn English? I have been to some pretty remote places in the world, but there is almost always someone who can speak enough English to communicate. There are more people learning English as a second language than speak it as a native language. English language schools are booming around the world, fueled by the need for a common tongue in our rapidly globalizing world. English is the language of commerce, education, medicine, and technology, not to mention the lingua-franca of the internet.
As an effort conservationist (someone too lazy to expend unnecessary effort), I have always found it difficult to find motivation to learn a foreign language when I know that many people who speak that language can also communicate in English. For example, when I did a summer-long Spanish immersion trip to Costa Rica, nearly everyone I encountered spoke better English than I did Spanish. Also, they were eager to practice their English with an American and preferred to speak in that language. This made it difficult to experience true “immersion” which requires that one be forced to use the language being studied. Had I been in a less-developed country than Costa Rica, I probably would have had a different experience, but any large city in Latin America has plenty of English speakers.
Ineffective language education
US schools get language education all wrong. It may make sense from a management perspective to wait until high school to introduce a foreign language so that students are able to make an informed decision regarding which language to study, but it flies in the face of biology. Language acquisition is a neurological process that is governed by our brain chemistry. Essentially, we are hard-wired to learn language when we are young, and the portion of our brain responsible for acquiring languages solidifies as we age. The “critical period” for language acquisition is from birth to age five, with some flexibility until puberty. Unfortunately, we usually don’t start learning a second language until after puberty, which makes for an inefficient and laborious process of memorization and hours of practice. For most people it is nearly impossible to become a native speaker, which means speaking without a noticeable accent, if you don’t begin studying a language until adulthood. Attaining fluency as an adult is possible, but it takes years of study and practice. This contrasts with how children can acquire multiple languages simultaneously without any formal instruction. Which way would you rather learn – flashcards and grammar drills, or playing with friends?
Language skills not valued
One of the reasons why foreign language instruction is not a focus of primary education in the US is that it is not valued by society. Speaking a second language is “neat”, but most parents would prefer their student spend extra time on reading, writing, math, and science rather than learning a foreign language. I think this is part of the larger attitude of isolationism that has been present in the US for centuries, which largely due to our geography and cultural homogeny. In most places in the world, there are neighboring areas or countries that speak a foreign language. In order to travel, trade, and interact, it was necessary to speak the language of your neighbors. Think of Europe or India – a landmass the size of the US that contains dozens of diverse languages, often intermixed in the same towns. In contrast, the US has wide oceans on each side and only one (or two if you count Quebec) neighbors who speak a foreign language. Since we are the regional, not to mention global, superpower, it is expected that our neighbors function in the dominant language of the continent – English. Thankfully, the US is slowly become more bilingual due to the influx of immigrants from Latin America, but this is being meant with strong reaction from more conservative populations.
The US is one of the most monolingual societies in the world. Despite the increasing prevalence of Spanish, I doubt that will change. I hope to be part of the solution, but it may be too late for me. I do hope to someday get to a conversational level in Spanish, but that is not on the horizon in the near future. Instead, I am going to focus on giving Abel the gift of a foreign language. I don’t want to pressure him to study a language simply because it is something I wish I had done when I was younger. I know to be careful in trying to “over-correct” the perceived deficits in my childhood with my own children, but I want to attempt to expose Abel to language in a more natural and effective way. Since Jess is fluent in Mandarin, we hope to continually expose him to and encourage his use of Mandarin. No worksheets or study sessions yet – just lots of listening and play with the language.
Eventually, we hope to find a nanny or playmate who is native speakers. If we continually expose him to the language and give him ample opportunity to use it, in theory he can become a native speaker. At least continued exposure will make studying the language much easier as he grows up. Of course he could decide at any age that he doesn’t want to learn Chinese, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t push a little. I can’t imagine him as an adult cursing us for not having helped him learn the most widely spoken language in the world when he was a young child. If he does, at least he can curse me in multiple languages.