Monolingual America

The majority of Americans are monolingual largely due to the legacy of isolationism. Assimilation of new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe was the primary goal of school systems in the early twentieth century (Rowe & Levine, 2015, p. 253). Even into the twenty-first century, there is a sizable portion of the population who become irritated and combative when people around them speak languages other than English or because the automated call center has the option of pressing two for Spanish. According to Amelia Friedman, “Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom” (2015). This is very disheartening that so many students receive foreign language instruction in high schools across America and in the end less than one percent come out proficient. I think that if the country prioritized language learning it would be another story. If foreign languages were required from early elementary school through high school there would likely be more interest in continuing to pursue language learning in universities and into adulthood. Sadly, becoming proficient in a foreign language takes a lot of time and it is difficult for many Americans to see the benefit in something that takes so much energy without an immediate financial reward.

Speaking more than one language certainly has its benefits. Whether you are born into a bilingual environment or devote yourself to become proficient in another language you can help keep your mind sharp and according to one study can even delay the onset of dementia (Bak et al., 2014). I believe that speakers of more than one language have better diversity awareness making them more flexible at interacting with members of different culture groups. I have a lot of admiration for people who have devoted tens of thousands of hours into learning another language. My first Chinese language classroom in Taipei was an interesting group of people: Three students from Japan, two from Malaysia, one from Malawi, one from France, one from Mexico, and two Americans (myself and a retired NYC bus driver). With the exception of the other American and I, everyone else was already proficient in at least two other languages.

References

Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M. and Deary, I. J. (2014), Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?. Ann Neurol., 75: 959–963. doi:10.1002/ana.24158

Friedman, A. (2015, May 10). America’s Lacking Language Skills. Retrieved November 26, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/05/filling-americas-language-education-potholes/392876/

Rowe, B. M., & Levine, D. P. (2015). A concise introduction to linguistics. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.