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Tongue-Tied
America's English-only ways hurt its citizens
By Zhen Xu

There is an old joke shared in the immigrant community. In addition to a chuckle, it offers some insight into a troubling phenomenon.

What do you call a person who speaks more than two languages?

Multilingual.

What do you call a person who speaks two languages?

Bilingual.

Then how about a person who speaks one language?

American.

Being bilingual or multilingual is common in immigrant families. Parents who migrate to America don’t want their children cut off from the culture of their ancestors. They want their kids to assimilate into American life. They want them to access the privileges and opportunities this country offers. But at the same time, the fear is losing that ever-important cultural identity in the process. It is a tough juggling act.

One of the best ways to stay connected to the roots is by speaking the mother tongue.

It never dawned on me how difficult this could be until I moved to America and tried to help my daughter keep her Chinese skills. Surprisingly, learning a second language is not popular in American elementary schools. It is ultimately, and almost exclusively, on the families to push their children to learn a second language or even hold on to their heritage languages. For my 5-year-old daughter, speaking our native language was no problem. However, reading and writing Chinese characters was still difficult for her. She had to take a weekend class to catch up. It had to be the weekend because adding extra study hours to the week was met with resistance. She often questioned why she had to study another language when her friends did not have the same requirement.

Some families require their native tongue at home as a way to keep their culture ever-present. Assimilation into American life is fine outside the house. But home is where they hang on. As a result, immigrant children tend to be bilingual and get the benefits of being so.

American citizens, however, are missing out. That’s because it seems easier these days to find an American student more passionate about math than about learning a language other than English. And that’s saying a lot considering math is one of the most hated subjects among U.S. students.

While many high schools require language courses to graduate, it doesn’t appear to be a top priority of the American education system. According to a survey by the American COuncisl for International Education, published in 2017, only about 20 percent of K-12 students study a foreign language. So, in that sense, U.S. public schools are little help for immigrants looking to keep their children connected to their motherland through language.

Language map.png
Language map.png

Part of the reason is, undoubtedly, American exceptionalism, an ideology no doubt bolstered by immigrants such as myself who chose to start a new life here. Many in the country believe wholeheartedly in the nation’s superiority and therefore learning English is all that is necessary. According to a study published in 2019 by the U.S. Census Bureau, only 20 percent of Americans can converse in two or more languages compared with 56 percent of Europeans. 

There have been repeated attempts in Congress to make English, officially, the national language. It has failed repeatedly as the voices of an inclusive America that embraces immigrants are still very strong. But the nation’s attitude towards learning other languages suggests an engrained ideology of English as a supreme language. Because America is relatively isolated from other languages, the need for learning other languages isn’t so pressing. In places like Europe, where nearby nations speak different tongues, there is a practicality in learning other languages. America has a predominantly English-speaking Canada to the north and a Spanish-speaking Mexico to its south. The practical need for being bilingual, outside of intellectual curiosity for prolonged travel abroad, isn’t so profound for U.S. citizens. So why waste time, energy and moment learning a second language?

But even that logic should be examined. Perhaps it was true many years ago. But as technology connects the world, foreign languages are closer to American society than they’ve ever been. The internet, smartphones and cheap flight tickets have shrunk the distance between countries, continents and languages. The earth has become a global village. America is no longer an isolated country.

Plus, as a celebrated beacon for immigrants, America’s core values — the ones etched into the tents of the nation and lionized by symbols like the Statue of Liberty — are favorable to cultures of the world. That would suggest an appreciation for and a desire to interact with other cultures and people from other lands. Learning to speak other languages fits the spirit of America, the English-only dogma aside. 

Participating in global commerce, interacting with growing immigrant populations in America and the popularization of foreign media and entertainment, they point to a society that would embrace speaking other languages.

Similarly, telling immigrants in America to forget their culture and fully embrace American culture is contrary to the country’s lofty ideals of inclusiveness.

 

Indeed, English has become a global language. According to the data site Statista, around 1.26 billion people worldwide spoke English as a first or second language in 2019 — even more than the 1.12 billion Mandarin Chinese speakers. The rest of the world is eager to learn English.

“Learning another language is one of the most rewarding things a person can do,” Christine Schulze, executive director of Concordia Langauge Villages, said in a 2017 article on her company’s website.

The mindset of English superiority, the lack of emphasis on producing multilingual citizens, actually works against Americans.

For starters, the tendency to not be interested in learning about other cultures contributes to the xenophobic atmosphere in America. The lack of understanding and appreciation, which would be aided by learning multiple languages, feeds into behaviors that can make other nations dislike Americans. These behaviors include being irritated when people speak in foreign languages in public, buying into stereotypes about people from other countries and disrespecting other cultural traditions and rituals (even unknowingly).

The demand for total assimilation to American norms pressures immigrants to avoid speaking their native languages and sharing their culture, which deprives Americans of worldly perspectives. Language learning increases cognitive benefits, improves social life, raises awareness of other cultures and improves the traveling experience.

Learning other languages helps workers stay competitive in the marketplace. A 2017 report from Ner American Economy showed the demand for bilingual workers in the U.S. grew from 240,000 jobs in 2010 to 630,000 jobs by 2015. Business Roundtable put out a report in 2019 that said one in five American jobs were tied to international trade.

A golden rule in business: good relationships promote good cooperation.

A known Chinese saying is: having good relationships can reduce problems, but having no or bad relationships can cause many problems.

 

Even when a professional interpreter is needed, trying to learn some of the languages of a partner and expressing respect for their culture is just good business. Plus, the job market is a constant concern. Per the New Yorker, America turned the calendar into 2021 with 10 million fewer jobs on the market than in February 2020. Competing in the global workforce requires adapting to the global marketplace. Without language learning, the U.S. employer base risks being unequipped.

Kirstin Brecht-Baker, the founder of Global Professional Search, said, “Americans are in danger of needing to import human capital, someone capable of communicating in languages, someone who can use the language to augment and fortify other skills.”

Immigrant parents force their students to cling to their native tongue and reap the benefits of being bilingual or multilingual. Meanwhile, American citizens have fallen well behind the rest of the world.

“We need increasingly to be able to interact with the rest of the world, to engage with them, to be able to compete economically and diplomatically,” Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said in a 2018 interview on Boston University’s radio station WBUR, a member station of NPR.

“And if you don’t have the language skills, you truly do not understand other cultures, and you’re not able to fully engage with the rest of the world. We think naively sometimes that business gets done at the business table. It gets done in social interactions, It gets done even in hallways. And if you don’t speak the language, you can’t fully engage in those interactions.”

 

Being bilingual or multilingual doesn’t just help scholastically, socially and professionally. But studies show learning other languages can even delay neurological diseases such as dementia and Alzheimers. Many senior citizens try learning other leagues for that reason.

As a country of immigrants, America has a significant opportunity to empower the next generation with foreign language skills. The presence of other cultures allows Americans to learn through immersion just as immigrants learn English. Students can find the opportunity to interact with native speakers because of the diversity present in the U.S. — opportunities that don’t exist as much in some other countries. After all, the immersion environment is essential in language learning.

I first learned English in middle school in china. Learning English was a national mandate. It still is, but now, it begins in elementary school. Most believe speaking English is a guarantee of a good job and a successful life. Unfortunately, at that time, it was difficult to find a foreigner. My English teachers didn’t interact with any foreigners or even us students. I didn’t get to talk to native English speakers until I attended a university.

In the U.S., you can learn a language and literally go test your skills in society. This only makes it more concerning why learning multiple languages is common in other countries but not in the most-developed one.    

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