American multilingualism?

Chinese-american man 1
Is he monolingual? (“Chinese-american man 1”; Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I heard a common joke once again today: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.  What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.  What do you call someone who speaks only one language? American.  Not only does most of the world hold this view, but so do many Americans–an American was telling the joke this time.  Much of my blog targets the shortcomings of monolingual Americans confronting a multilingual world.  The stereotype of the monolingual American, surprisingly, does not hold for a large minority of the US population.

While Americans are known universally as adamant monolinguals, many know at least one language other than English.  Over 20% of American speak a language other than English at home.  Significantly, under 13% of Americans were not born in the US.  One can conclude that many of these “other language” speakers learned them in the US.  (Data come from the US census.)

I believe the numbers are actually higher, maybe closer to 25-30%, because I believe in the controversial idea that African-American Vernacular English is a distinct dialect/language from standard English.  Native speakers of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) speak a distinct dialect of English that is not completely comprehensible to Standard American English speakers.  AAVE differs in phonology, syntax, morphology, and vocabulary–all the categories in which we find language variation.  Because these speakers have to be conversant in Standard American English, they must be bilingual.  If speakers of this dialect are only 5% of the US population (just an estimate: over 13% of the US population is black and over 2% are multi-racial and not all speakers of AAVE are black), then the proportion of Americans who know a foreign language fluently rises to at least one-fourth.

Yet monolingual Standard American English speakers judge these speakers of multiple languages by one question: How good is their (Standard) English?  Accented English is considered less “good” than “pure” Standard English.  The stigma spreads to those who work with these people; our society does not value those around us who speak multiple languages.  English as a second language teachers and hospital interpreters will never become rich.  Working in a bi-lingual world in the US means that you are working with poor, uneducated people.

I repeat: our society does not value those who speak multiple languages.  Americans’ focus on English ability prevents them from seeing the value of all the languages spoken around them.  The Mexican landscaper and Vietnamese nail salon worker are “uneducated,” “imperfect” speakers of English.  The co-worker or offshore helpdesk employees speaks “passible,” though “frustrating,” English.  The occasional multilingual international business-person will shine through, but he or she will not begin high up; the language skills are soft skills usually considered a “benefit” but not often “required” for the job.

If Americans want to become the next great power, they will need to operate in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural global marketplace, and they must value multilingual abilities.  We can see the value already in those who know another language.  Once you learn a language, the next comes more easily, especially if the next is related to a previous one.  For example, if one learns the Chinese language of Cantonese (the most widely-spoken Chinese language in the US), learning Mandarin will come much more easily.  Rather than spending thousands of dollars on Mandarin, one can learn Cantonese by eating more often at Chinese restaurants and interacting with you neighbors.

As Americans, we are surrounded by people with valuable skills.  Everyone who speaks with an accent, who struggles to converse in English, speaks another language.  They are the ones who will lead the majority of Americans who are monolingual into the global marketplace of ideas and commerce.


7 thoughts on “American multilingualism?

  1. Nice post! I know this joke that you wrote at the beginning. I think that Americans are in a good postiton because they know English, which is now so popular, but it may have its drawbacks, for instance some Americans can feel that there’s no need to study other languages.


    1. True! Why learn Norwegian when they all speak English anyway? 🙂 I spoke a few words of Norwegian when I was there and it went over so well. So I’ll tell you why you learn it: out of respect for the people around you and out of love for new ways of understanding.


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