Pub quiz time: what is the official language of the United States? We’ll wait.
Because whilst English is perceived as the language of the United States, there is no official language of the United States. It is only an official language in 27 states, and we say, only, because if movements such as English Only got their way, then English would be the only language supposed to be spoken from coast to coast. Bleugh, we say, on behalf of the 41 million native Spanish speakers, the speakers of indigenous American languages, and the wealth of other language speakers across the country. Languages are good.
But the monolingual attitude we see coming out of the United States has to come from somewhere, right? This nation, borne of immigration (and subsequent genocide of its indigenous people, but that’s a subject for elsewhere), with many grandparents of current native English speakers who could only talk in their native Polish, German, Portuguese etc, should theoretically embrace the richness of language diversity. So, what’s happening?
A recent Tumblr post attracted almost 500,000 notes, bemoaning high schools putting all their money into sports rather than basic facilities, such as soap and toilet paper. What does that have to do with language? Well, if the focus is solely on, say, football, then where will the money be to recruit foreign language teachers? Where are the after-school language clubs, textbooks, practical classroom resources, and so on? If budget cuts to the education system mean making difficult choices, which subjects are going to be invested in; the ones that make school appear better, or the ones that need a huge amount of overhaul to make them effective?
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Since there’s no national system, and foreign language education varies from state to state, with ‘token’ credits in foreign languages required for either school graduation or college entry, there is little motivation for students to enroll on language programmes. Foreign language students, if you ask them, will likely tell you that their lessons are poorly taught, with teachers dealing with over-stretched or inadequate resources, and the subject matter so uninteresting that students immediately lose interest. Couple that with the overall decline in the number of both public and private elementary schools teaching foreign languages and the subsequent lateness of foreign language introduction around the age of 11, and there’s bound to be disinterest. If you grow up thinking other languages aren’t important, how are you going to escape an English only mentality?
Only 36% of Americans own a passport, which could contribute to the attitude of I don’t need anything but English. The United States is geographically isolated, and that lack of exposure to other languages seems to contribute to that English first outlook. Californians and Texans learn Spanish, perhaps because they border Mexico (so there’s not true geographic isolation, then…), between 18 and 25% of New Yorkers can speak Spanish, yet only 18% of the entire population of the USA say they can speak another language. If the United States really is the land of the free, attracting people from the world over because of that freedom, surely it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination that there are other languages besides English?
Now, there are defensive arguments about this. Nationalities that don’t speak English as a native language are often fantastic, fluent English speakers, so when us native English speakers try to practice their languages, we don’t get the chance – so why bother learning? There is also a bewildering wealth of languages to choose from, so how does an English speaker know where to start? Should they choose a Romance language? A Germanic one? Something with a similar alphabet, or one that has no alphabet at all? Which is going to benefit them most? Which is easiest to pick up? Truly, sometimes too much choice feels as bad as having none…
And because there apparently aren’t a great deal of people learning foreign languages in the United States, people also argue that there’s no one to practice with. We wonder if they’ve heard of language clubs and exchanges, or Skype…
Literacy is occasionally touted as a reason for Americans not learning foreign languages, in the sense of lacking the ability to even read and write in their own tongue first. A valid point. There are also, if you care to look for them, Tweets, Facebook statuses, and so on, where Americans complain about the presence of Other Languages™️ in their TV commercials and on their billboards, screaming that this is America, we speak English. There’s a word for ideas like that, but we won’t use it…
Perhaps it really is just a case of education: maybe there are people in the United States unaware that there in fact are languages besides English. Who knows?