Thursday, March 6, 2008

Monolingual Americans

If you’ve traveled around this world of ours – in continental Europe, in South America, in many parts of Asia – you have noticed that many of the world’s citizens speak two languages, and some speak three or more. In fact, there are more multilingual people in the world than monolingual.

Monolingual Americans – and if you are American you are likely monolingual – invariably feel a twinge of shame about this. In Germany or Singapore, Moscow or Rio, folks switch from their language to ours because it’s understood us backward Americans can’t switch from ours to theirs. We live in the land of the single tongue, and surely this must be because we are less cultured, less intellectually curious, more barbaric even. How much more sophisticated would we be if we could only parlez-vous francais?

Nonsense. Any first-year economics student can tell you that people do things when they have an incentive to do so. Americans (and Canadians) have very little incentive, economic or otherwise, to invest the time and energy required to learn a foreign language, and very little opportunity to maintain it if they did. Europeans, on the other hand, have an enormous incentive to learn the languages of their neighbors. And, along with affluent, educated, or ambitious South Americans and Asians, they share an enormous incentive to learn the language of the world – English.

Do You Speak Jersey?
I live in New York. The New Jersey border is four miles South, and Connecticut is about a half hour to the East. Let’s imagine that each of these three states spoke a different language.

Welcome to Switzerland. Switzerland is not a very big country – if it was an American state it would rank 42nd in square mileage, between West Virginia and Maryland. But it is bordered by five other countries speaking 3.5 different languages: France (French), Italy (Italian), Germany and Austria (German), and Lichetenstein (a dialect of German called Alemannic).

It doesn’t stop there, though. Switzerland is in the European Union, and the EU alone recognizes 23 official languages.

Many Swiss can speak French, German, and English. This is not because they are a particularly cultured people – in fact (and I apologize to my large Swiss readership), Switzerland hasn’t contributed very much to world culture. The list of Swiss writers and composers, painters and pop stars, is alas, rather small. No Shakespeare or Twain, no Mozart or McCartney, no Picasso or da Vinci. They speak multiple languages for the simple reason that they have to – they are economically and geographically impelled to do so.

English is the Frankish Language

The term lingua franca literally means “Frankish language”, but the actual definition of lingua franca is the unofficial language of the world, the language that is used in business, science, aviation, and diplomacy.

Many languages have played the role of lingua franca. Greek, Latin, then the aforementioned Frankish language (which wasn’t a real language, but a pidgin mix of Italian and other romance languages). French was the language of global diplomacy from the 17th century until very recently.

But now it is English. English ranks only 4th in terms of number of speakers. But it is the global language of scientific papers, of business conferences, of air control towers, of treaty negotiations.

So in addition to their neighbors' languages the citizens of Switzerland need to know English, especially if they want to go work at the bank. The same is true of educated people around the world. English is, at this particular point in world history, the most important language in the world.

For an educated New Yorker, there is no real incentive to learn another language. He can travel to New Jersey and Connecticut, and they speak the same language. He can travel 2000 miles to the South, 3000 miles to the West, across most of Canada, its giant neighbor to the North, and all points in between - and the people, with little exception, speak English. (And things aren't looking good for the exceptions this week...)

He could then hop on a plane East to the United Kingdom, and except for a few odd words, they speak the same language too. Even more, in business meetings from Berlin to Beijing, Reykjavik to Rio, Honolulu to Hong Kong, the lingua franca will be English.

For the Swiss, as for the German and Singaporean, learning another language is often a necessity. For nearly all Americans, it is a luxury.

What about the English?

The English themselves, incidentally, are a fairly monolingual people. Sure, the particularly affluent might know French, which is a train ride away. But like Americans, with their Mother Tongue in ascendancy, they have little reason to dedicate the time required for a second language, and little opportunity to maintain it if they did.

Unable to tout their language skills, the English instead revel in their passport superiority. Very few Americans, they point out, even have a passport. True, but remember too the range of travel an American can enjoy without owning a passport. He can travel from the volcano islands of the South Pacific to the glaciers of Alaska; from the Big Sky country of Montana to the theme parks of Florida. From the metropolis of New York City to the badlands of the Dakotas to juke joints in the Mississippi Delta to the coffee shops of Seattles. He can surf the waves of Southern California and ski the slopes of Utah, he can hit the Vegas Strip, the French Quarter in Nawlins, and catch autumn in New England - he can go to all of these places without once passing through customs. Or for that matter, breaking out a foreign language phrasebook.

The English have, as you can imagine, significantly more incentive to get themselves a passport.

Confucius Say

So the next time you are abroad, and find yourself humbled by the effortless fluency of your hosts, or even for the paucity of passports we have, remember that there is a perfectly good reason for this.

But don't get too cocky. Lingua francas only last so long, so you might want to send your kid to this site.


John said...

Interesting hypothesis. I can go with you on your reasoning. However, the thing that bothers me about Americans being monolingual is the arrogance inherent in expecting the rest of the world to learn English. It is a typical, American lack of courtesy for anyone other than me, me, me. Some cultural exposure beyond urban language might do everyone a bit of good.

kanajlo said...

Break that insular attitude by learning a little Esperanto. It's fun, it's easy, and it gets a person interested in other language. Esperanto would also be a good language to use when everyone in a group seems to be speechless.

Anonymous said...

While I can appreciate your putting across why Americans are monolinguals, I'd like to point out a few facual errors and fallacies in your post.

First of all, Switzerland is not a part of European Union as you claim. It is an federation of four nations quite independant of the EU.

Secondly, your claim that Switzerland "hasn’t contributed very much to world culture" is symbolic of American ignorance. Swiss contribution to world culture is immense for its size, population and its lack of imperialism. If I were write about Switzerland's contribution to contemporary and modern world culture, it would fill a book. Your own Declaration of Independance was inspired by the works of Jean Jacques Rosseau, who was from Geneva. Albert Einstein was a Swiss before he moved to United States. The Red Cross was founded in Switzerland by a Swiss National. These are just three of them, which might be familiar to you as an American. Switzerland also has the highest per capita Nobel Prize winners, in literature and sciences.

In any case, a country (or region) doesn't need to contribute to 'world culture' for its people to be cultured. I guess its difficult for Americans to understand that, since their lack of culture makes for their inability to understand who are cultured and who are not. So typical of Americans!

Keatang said...

With all due respect to Anonymous, if you can only name two Swiss who were huge contributors to world culture and one of them is Einstein, you've sort of proved my point. He is no more Swiss than he is American (he holds citizenship in both countries).

I'll give you Rousseau, whose political philosophy I am quite familiar with, but who I admit i thought was French. But if you can name a single other Swiss writer, musician or artist that is known outside of Switzerland, feel free to share. No Germans, please.

Aleksandr said...

Here you go. Carl Burckhardt, who was one of the major progenitors of cultural history from the Renaissance area. Then there is Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, one of the most famous writers in the French language. Both of them are famous names in Europe. As for artist, there is Grimm, among the most famous artists of the Renaissance era. As for music, Switzerland isn't really a pop-music scene, yet you'd find street bands in almost every street corner of Zurich, Geneva or Basle.

Rosseau was a proper Swiss, a French speaking Swiss. He is famous in France for having inspired the "Rights of Man" during the Revolution. Einstein is more a Swiss than an American, and I am not talking politics here. He was made what he is in Switzerland, he moved to America after he made a name in his specialty.

I am sure you wouldn't know most of these people, since one of the first casualties of American monolingualism is their understanding of world culture. (Americans' idea of culture is like a Jew's idea of what bacon tastes like.)

To answer the author's question in this context, yes, you would become more cultured if you learn to speak French. Not because of the ability to speak the language itself but because French would open you up to a world that you can never see through the eyes of an Anglicised journal, book or other media.

While Switzerland is more Anglophone than the rest of Europe, the average Swiss can live life without any problems if he/she doesn't speak English. My father is a good example here, he was a successful KGB officer and then a UN diplomat without speaking any more English beyond the basic phrases.

By the way, EU nationals can travel more without a passport than Americans can. From the cold glaciers of Norway to the summer beaches of Canary Islands. From the gothic city of Prague to the glass-and-steel city of Hamburg. From the ramps of Milan to the high streets of Paris - all accessible without having to go through customs. And the best part of it is that you get to travel actual countries, each with its unique culture, language, heritage and politics.

Keatang said...

I wrote this post quite a while ago and didn't expect any Swiss to stumble upon it. I apologize for my slur on your culture. I have been to Switzerland and thoroughly enjoyed it.

But I stand by the larger point I made in my piece. If you live in America, it is simply not necessary or useful to speak English, and it has nothing to do with us being uncultured rednecks. It has everything to do with our geography and the combination of British, and later American influence in global affairs since 1800. Had Napoleon defeated Wellington, I have no doubt more of us would be speaking French. Had the Third Reich prevailed, I have no doubt more of us would be speaking German.

But Napoleon lost at Waterloo and the German army was thrown back at Normandy and Stalingrad, and English became the world's most dominant language. That, coupled with our geographic isolation, has made the learning of multiple languages less useful than is required for the Swiss.

But in making this point I took a shot at a culture I don't know very much about, and apologize. In my brief travels in Switzerland I was struck by the many tongues of so many Swiss, so they were the perfect example of a country that required polylingualism. This coupled with the fact that I couldn't really name many Swiss artists made them the perfect foil.

But I'm still not giving you Einstein.

Aleksandr said...

I am not a Swiss, although I am sure a Swiss will appreciate your apology if they read it. Thanks for being being polite and cool with this. No offence meant, but in my experience it is sadly, a rare quality among Americans (in times of disagreement).

I might survive not speaking English in America, but life would be quite difficult (unless I live in a predominantly Hispanic area, like Miami). Even as a visitor, I have experienced amivalent feelings from Americans who made rude comments on my English because of my accent. I can only imagine what those who don't speak English might have to live with.

I lived in Switzerland for quite sometime and I found it as culturally intriguing as any other European country. The Swiss people are also a very pleasant lot, their diversity of languages is one of their many qualities that will not make you feel out of place - whoever you are.

Dominic said...


Europe’s Schengen Agreement wasn’t even in existence until 1985. The United States operated like a Schengen Area long before this date, fostering our unified monologist society. For America, our expectation that every immigrant assimilates has indubitably contributed to our material wealth, the reason so many foreign/domestic scientists do noble worthy work here (, and Europe has emulated this American quality with the EU. I’m sorry you've experienced Americans who are nasty because of your English. Are you sure they are hostile to you personally, or are they simply expressing they are having difficulty understanding your accent?

I wish you well

Dominic said...

A few corrections to the post above:


I was tired when I posted this, hahaha.

Anonymous said...

The ones who are usually multilingual in America are mainly the first and second generation immigrants from non-English speaking countries, particularly Asia and Latin America, and of course, those who choose to study another language in high school or college. This also seems to be the case in other New World nations such as Aus and Canada.

And here is what one fellow student here at UCLA once said: "I know four languages: English, C++, Javascript, Python, and Fortran".