Americans and foreign languages

There’s a joke that goes: What do you call someone who’s fluent in two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks many languages? Multilingual. What do you call someone who only knows one language? An American.

I think the joke has a point. But why is this the case? I don’t think it’s because Americans can’t be bothered with foreign languages; at least that isn’t the whole reason. I took four years of Spanish in high school and two years of Russian in college, got good grades in both, and now speak both poorly. OTOH, Nava’s native language is Spanish, but she writes in English better than many Americans. Is it because our system of foreign language education sucks compared to that in other countries? Could be. What do you guys think, and what can be done?

I think it is just because most Americans don’t encounter people that can’t speak some English very often. Languages take consistent practice to maintain or proficiency withers fairly quickly. That isn’t the case in, say, Europe where someone is likely to have several neighbors that all speak different languages so there is some benefit into learning others.

Another reason is that English is the de facto universal language. You can travel all over the world and never be forced to interact in anything but English if you don’t know the local language because hospitality staff in most of the popular spots speak English just fine.

High school and college students usually spend a lot of time learning a foreign language. However, most people don’t get much of an opportunity to use it after that (except for Spanish in some areas) so it fades away to the point of practical uselessness.

What Shagnasty said. I speak at least two different language on a daily basis (as do most of my colleagues) and often enough I am in the situation where I am switching between 3 or 4 different languages for days at an end.

I don’t speak all of them as fluently as my native tongue, but still… it keeps my rudimentary knowledge active and builds on that.

Yeah, Shagnasty hit all the main points. For many of us Americans, we live many hundreds of miles away from any country where the main language is something other than English.

Plus, virtually all the books and movies and music and TV shows and websites I’m interested in are in English. I could find those things in other languages, if I went out of my way to look for them, but I don’t need to because there’s enough available in English to keep me busy for a lifetime.

This. (These.)

I spoke Japanese as a small child, and had German in high school and college and Japanese in college. There’s just very little opportunity to speak either of those languages. Had I learned Spanish, I’d probably remember it. It’s a case of ‘Use it or lose it.’

+1 to Shagnasty. It’s the same reason why the U.S. still can hold out on adopting the metric system. It’s a big enough country that you can live your whole life here and still not see it all.

Also, +1 to English being somewhat universal. England is a small country and part of Europe, but its citizens are barely more versed in foreign languages than we are (as far as I can tell).

@coffeecat – if you don’t practice a language, you lose it. That’s not just you, and not just Americans.

All the Anglosphere tends to be like that. Same in the UK, same in Australia, same in New Zealand - Canada’s a different case , but I’ll be surprised if they have any better rates of speaking a language that isn’t a native language within their borders.

English is too universal - and laziness pays off.

There was an article earlier this week in the papers about the push to get more Australians learning Chinese at school (it being so close, so big, and so economically important). Author estimated that, apart from people with an actual Chinese background, there were only about 130 fluent adult Chinese speakers in the whole country. No idea where she pulled the stat from but it’s appalling, if true

Japanese can’t learn English, despite mandatorily taking it in school for a decade of their life.

The only way to learn a language is by using it. In Japan and in most classes in the US (I believe), the teachers take a systematic, testable approach to teaching the language. If you can properly fill out a quiz where you write the foreign language words for these English words, then clearly you know the foreign language. There’s a lot of teaching and testing that goes on, but not a lot of practice talking, practicing creative writing, etc.

If you go to Berlitz, for example, you’ll start talking in the foreign language and there’s nothing else except doing that. You either need to learn how to speak the language or you’re going to have a pretty boring classroom experience. The end result is that you learn the language, but it’s not super testable and grade-able.

Now, yes, there wouldn’t be much practice for people to retain their 2nd language skills, in the US, but so far as I’ve seen American students never get any further towards fluency than Japanese do. They know some vocabulary and, on paper, they know how to conjugate their verbs, but they can’t speak a single sentence. So the problem of retention or outside of the classroom practice doesn’t even come into it.

I took Spanish in jr high and high school. Got a minor in it in college.

I didn’t have the opportunity to speak it. But, I would always talk to myself in Spanish. I didn’t want to lose it.

Twenty years later I lived in a city that was 30% Latinos. I am happy I didn’t lose it. A culture is difficult to understand without speaking the language.

You are correct that is the best (and arguably the only) way to truly learn a 2nd language but it also takes a massive amount of personal resources, especially time, when applied to even one person let alone extrapolating those types of techniques to the general population.

Even if you did that, what language(s) would you pick and why? Spanish is the most useful choice for most Americans but there are hundreds of others ranging from French to Korean to Navajo. I support it as an academic exercise for anyone that wants to do it but it is easy to oversell the practical benefits in a world where English is the most widely used 2nd language by far. I don’t think there is very much practical benefit to forcing American students to become conversant or fluent in a wide range of the world’s languages just to show we don’t want to be seen as hypocritical.

The basic problem is the incentives are asymmetrical for Americans or other native English speakers to really learn a second language versus all others. If a Chinese person becomes fluent in English, their marketability and income potential jumps significantly. If the reverse happens, it is usually just an intellectual curiosity with few tangible benefits and that is an extreme case.

It is even less of a advantage when you compare languages like Dutch and Icelandic to English. Most of their native speakers know English as a second language fluently because they need to if they want to participate in much outside of their own country but the reverse isn’t true. Even Americans that teach English as a second language in other countries aren’t usually required to know the native language very well.

It is a nice idea in general but it takes an unusual amount of time for most people that is probably better spent on some of our other educational deficits in my view. I plan to relearn Spanish again soon simply because I want to have the option of moving to Costa Rica or somewhere else in Central America in a few years but I would not go through it again if I did not have that specific goal.

That is how the Boston public schools “taught” coffeespouse French. She doesn’t remember a word.

My junior-high Spanish teacher would whack the desk with a ruler and scream whenever a student translated. We quickly learned not to do that . . . or else.

My Boston area children are in a very rare public school French immersion program in suburbs. They started out going full immersion in Kindergarten and didn’t start to get their first classes in English until 4th grade. Their French training will continue through high school.

They can both speak French fluently as can their mother (she was a French major in college and uses it for work) but good luck getting them to speak it outside of school. They will not do it even for me and the only times I have ever heard them speak it are when they were having conversations with their mother when they didn’t realize I could hear it. I obviously don’t speak French but I can read some of it being from Louisiana originally.

Their French immersion program isn’t really about them learning to speak French. It is just an unusual program that gets a lot of attention and resources in all ways and the 2nd language is just a side benefit. They love going to France but they don’t even speak French most of the time while they are there.

I think they will get some benefits from it long-term but French mastery isn’t among their priorities at this point in their young lives. They would both drop the whole thing like a it was a turd on fire if they could just so that they could go back to speaking like normal people in their mind at least.

I’m having a hard time finding higher quality data, but this page is interesting and fits with the conclusions so far.

Australia, the US, the UK, and Canada all do the worst in multilingualism. Unsurprisingly, Australians do even worse than the US (at least we border a nation that speaks a foreign language). But we all do quite poorly. It’s also no surprise that English is on every list of most popular language combinations around the world.

I learned Yiddish because my aunt speaks it, and my cousins speak it, but I don’t speak any particular dialect of Yiddish, and I would describe myself as “conversant,” rather than fluent. I read and write Hebrew, but I don’t speak, which is another thing altogether. It’s possible to be literate in a language without knowing how to speak it-- and FWIW, I know biblical Hebrew-- I have trouble with a modern Israeli newspaper, although I think if you plopped me down in Jerusalem, I’d probably learn faster than someone starting from scratch. I also read Latin, but don’t write it very well. I get declensions mixed up too much. But few people outside the Vatican speak Latin. Probably 97% of people who know Latin well are only literate and don’t speak it.

Conversely, I am fluent in American Sign Language, a language that has no written form. I had total immersion in it when I was at Gallaudet University, and I can’t stress the importance of immersion enough. Immersion + motivation can produce fluency in a year. I had one year of classroom study that amounted to three hours in class, three hours studying videos, and three hours of practice with other beginners, per week, followed but total immersion, including classes with Deaf professors I’d bloody well better understand if I wanted to get good grades-- well, I also had a 3-week summer program at Gallaudet for new signers before the first semester started.

I took French, also, in high school and college, and I used to speak in passably, but I don’t anymore. However, I do still read it.

It is probably different now that people can travel, but Eastern Europe used to be full of people who can read English but can speak it.

One thing about English and English speakers: I’ll bet we can code switch and understand different dialects in a way that people whose native language isn’t so widely spoken don’t dream of. I mean, I once went to London, and could understand a guy in Limehouse who I think was a little drunk, and have 5 or 6 teeth. I can understand Monty Python, and* Priscilla, Queen of the Desert*. I can understand people from Appalachia, border neighborhoods in Texas, people with Cajun accents, and people from Jamaica. My mother is a linguist, and calls switching among dialects “code-switching.” I’ll bet native English speakers excel at this.

What’s more, we can understand all those people who learned English as a second language. It may not be as hard as learning a second language, but it is a skill in itself. My mother, who herself speaks 8 languages, also excels at deciphering people who learned English from a record. My Deaf friend from Sweden, who I used ASL with, and had no trouble signing with, but could not understand her recent efforts to speak English (she was fully literate in it, and apparently spoke Swedish pretty well, and had a Sheldon Cooper IQ, but with Penny social skills) had her first successful spoken English conversation with my mother. Anyway, my mother is fully qualified to say that this is a skill.

Some Americans are xenophobic, but on the whole, Americans are pretty patient which 2nd language English speakers. You can’t discount that.

OK, TL;DR, so I’ll shut up now.

Another point is that for most of the non-English speaking world the obvious second language is English. It offers huge benefits and there’s a larger group of people to converse with all around you. In the US, what is the obvious second language? Traditionally it has been French, especially in the areas close to Quebec, and Spanish. But there are benefits to learning Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, German, etc. So there’s no clear choice for Americans like there is for the rest of the world.

That is a good point. I have heard ideas that English is one of the hardest languages to truly master but one of the easier ones to learn in pidgin forms. I don’t know if that is true but it might be because I can understand many very different forms of it very easily no matter how badly it is spoken or written. You have to screw something really badly before the general idea can’t be conveyed at all.

However, it is possible to have unintelligible dialects of English even within the U.S. My affluent Boston area raised wife visited my very small Louisiana home town when we first started dating. I took her to truly excellent but primitive BBQ stand out in the middle of nowhere because I wanted to show her what good barbecue was. She literally could not understand what anyone was saying even though everyone was speaking their own versions of English. The people that ran it were very old-school black men that spoke in their own dialect that isn’t really found anywhere else. I never realized it up until that point but the accent and vocabulary were so different that it became mutually unintelligible so I had to provide translation from one version of English to another.

I didn’t have any trouble understanding either side and never realized I was bilingual until that point. It is like a more subtle version of the Jive translation in the movie Airplane!. It wasn’t as over the top as that and it wasn’t a question of Ebonics either. It was just that native English speakers from very different areas and cultures had diverged enough so that they could not communicate effectively anymore but I understood both perfectly fine because I grew up with each version so it was effortless and seamless for me.

Something I once heard and I’m wondering if anyone can confirm or refute it. It was that Brazilians have a similar reputation to Americans; the stereotype is that Brazilians only speak their native Portuguese and don’t learn other languages.

Is this a genuine stereotype about Brazilians? And if so, is there any objective basis to it?

Studying a language in school is never going to make the vast majority of people fluent. They made us study Spanish in high school and I could never speak a word of it even though I passed the courses and could sort of read it. The only effective way to learn other languages is as a very young child. In many countries, natural opportunities exist for toddlers to be exposed to multiple languages so they just pick them up. That’s not going to happen in the US.

I have no idea, but I have known more than a few people, particularly Cuban doctors who did service with the Organización Panamericana de la Salud in Brazil, who seemed strangely surprised that most people in Brazil don’t speak Spanish.

I work with a metric boat-load of true Portuguese people and there are also a shit-ton of Brazilian people in some towns in my immediate area (this is Metro-West Boston Massachusetts). Those two groups don’t mix very much at all.

The Portuguese speak it among family but very much want to become just generic white people. A lot of them already are. The Brazilian people here only know their own version of Portuguese but they can all speak English as well and intend to stay in the U.S. so they try to assimilate too. They can be annoying because they take over local parks during prime soccer days but they are nice in general.

I don’t see why Brazilians would need to learn any other language besides English or Spanish (they are already 3/4 of the way there for the latter). Their closest neighbors in Barzil are all Spanish speaking and that is close enough. It is giant country with huge socio-economic problems. Who do you expect among them to indulge themselves in learning another language? Many of them are more concerned with just getting out and starting over anywhere they can.