Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Myth of Monolingual America

I often hear from people that only America doesn't treat second language learning seriously or they are too dumb to learn anything other than English. However, I don't see this as a matter of intelligence, but as a matter of enviornment, perception, and arrogance.

Regarding environment, frankly speaking, America historically never had a need to learn a foreign language. We have two huge oceans on either side of us, Mexico to the South, and English speaking Canada (sans French Quebec) to the North. Is Bill Bumford from Kansas or John Smith from Delaware really going to need to learn to speak German, French, or Spanish to succeed in life? I don't think so. Besides, as English is currently the business language of the world, Americans can be rest assured that while we are not learning any languages, the rest of the world is trying to learn ours. That being said, if you look a little closer, you will see that there are a lot of bilingual folks along the Southern border with Mexico. Once again, it is because of the environment. People speak Spanish and English because of the close proximity with Mexico. Same thing as with Florida and its Cuban American population. So in my eyes, multilingual Europeans are not smarter than the average bear, but because most European countries are surrounded by other countries; it is the environment that they grew up in that made them multilingual. Not all that different from people who grew up in Souther California, Texas, Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, etc. A prime example of this is Hong Kong. The territory used to have a very high number of excellent English speakers due to British annexation, but ten years after the handover, it is easy to see that the number of English speakers has decreased considerably in favor of Mandarin Chinese. It is all about the environment.

Perception, on the other hand, is also a huge factor. People tend to see Americans as white, blue-eyed, and blonde. They fail to understand that Americans are not one ethnicity, but a hodge-podge of cultures from different countries. So Johnny Nguyen from San Jose who was born in America, lived his whole life here, and speaks perfect English is not considered a real American. What I'm trying to say here is that there is a HUGE population of people here with ties to Asia, Africa, Central and South America who are bilingual and are just as American as our brothers who's families immigrated from Europe. An ABC or a Kyopo is no less American because being American has no relation to the blood that flows in your veins. It is just a misconception caused by people who don't understand the differences between nationality, ethnicity, and upbringing.

There is also a lot of arrogance going around on both sides of the fence. People who claim to speak English because they took it in school and did some tests. I once knew a French guy who was teaching English; problem was that every time he spoke it, it sounded like he had a xxxx in his mouth (for any family members who might be reading this, xxxx means food). My experience is pretty limited to Asia, but it always seems to me that for every good English speaker, there are 50,000 who don't have the skills no matter how many years they spent in school. Knowing how to say hasta la vista and yo quiero taco bell does NOT make me a Spanish speaker. And for every great English speaker, there are 500,000 who are not. In short, I don't think that Americans are dumber than other people in terms of foreign languages, I just think that a lot of those other peoples are not as smart as they think they are.

However, arrogance runs both ways. America's problem is that we are under the false impression that we make the world go round and English will always be the language of top dogs. English may be the language the world runs on today, but I think that Chinese will soon take over the throne. Being rest assured that everyone in the world is trying to learn English is fine and all, but it is arrogant to think that it will always be like that. Americans need to see the advantages of learning a foreign language. We should take the initiative now and at least TRY to learn a second tongue. And the smart bet is to make sure that the second tongue is Mandarin.

I think it is irrational to think that America lacks the intellect to learn a foreign language. That is the knee jerk response of unintelligent people. It is simply the result of environment, perceptioin, and arrogance. However, I agree that America fails to see the importance of multilingualism and that ignorance, I believe, will hurt us in the future. As a wise man once said, a cunning linguist is skilled with his tongue.

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