Just like the American educational
system being in tatters compared to the rest of the world --
a claim I proved as exaggerated -- another oft repeated piece
of nonsense is that Americans (or substitute the English or
Australians here) are just poor students of foreign
Various theories are posed for
Americans' shortcomings in the language department.
A writer at the American Spectator says that it's
because Americans don't hear very well.
He (stupidly) cites Americans' 'fault' in pronouncing
words like cassette as "kuh-set" rather than the "correct"
way of "kass-ette" as the reasons for American poor
performance in learning foreign languages.
Another argument is that Americans are ethnocentric.
Americans think their nation is so great and that the
rest of the world must learn their language while they scoff
at learning a word or two in any other.
Another insipid argument with no basis of fact.
In 2008, current president Barack Obama
commented in a town hall meeting in Ohio, "I don't speak a foreign
embarrassing!" He added in another town hall meeting in
Georgia, "It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here,
they all speak English, they speak French, they speak
German. And then
we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup,
what's embarrassing is that Obama bothered to say he was
This man has plenty of more important things to be
It's a further exaggeration to say that
most Europeans can speak bucketloads of languages.
In a 2006 survey among European Union member states,
28% claimed to be functionally trilingual.
By comparison, legislation introduced in the U.S.
Senate designating 2005 as "Year Of Foreign Language Study"
mentioned the fact that just 9.3% of Americans were
But actually, that 9.3% figure is
another piece of misleading information, only counting
Americans using a language other than English at home who
also happen to speak English outside.
English-speaking Americans who've learnt a second
language weren't counted in the totals.
Using a real world definition of bilingualism such
as Statistic Canada's "able to hold a conversation in
another language," Francois Grosjean, author of
and Reality, estimates that 17% of the U.S. population
That still doesn't measure up to the European Union's
figures on bilingualism (56%), but it's not as pathetic as
the doomsayers are screaming.
Americans do have the opportunity to
learn foreign languages.
91% of high schools in the country offer foreign
language instruction. But
only 25% at the elementary level do.
A child's best time to acquire a second language is
between ages 4 and 8.
At this stage, the second language gets stored in the
same part of the brain as the mother tongue.
This leads to a more native accent and less
grammatical errors. No
one argues with the fact that the earlier a new language is
taught, the easier it is to acquire.
In Europe, foreign
language learning starts in grades 1, 2, or 3, when children
are 6, 7, and 8.
Foreign language instruction has
to be taken seriously in Europe.
Countries are small in size by American standards.
One needn't travel far to be in another language
Switzerland has four official languages, so is it really any
surprise that many Swiss would be trilingual?
Residents of Barcelona speak Catalan as their mother
tongue but because Barcelona is still in Spain, they learn
They have to be at least bilingual.
North America, as large as it may be,
only has three languages spoken by any sizeable population
Spanish, and French.
And of these three main language areas, most
Americans, living in an English zone, do not have a French
or Spanish zone right around the corner to ever make
learning those other languages a necessity.
A situation comparable to the European experience is
Hispanic Americans living in or near border areas with
peoples' heritage and daily life involves Spanish, so
they're effortlessly bilingual.
Have a look at my personal experience learning
When I was six, my mother got me a private tutor for
Hebrew. I continued to meet this tutor weekly until I was
ten, until my mother moved me to the mediocre community
When I was eight and attending a private school, I
was able to take French classes.
These lasted until age eleven when I switched schools
and French was no longer offered.
I had to wait until I was fourteen before foreign
languages became an option again.
My high school offered German, French, Spanish, and
Latin. My mother
wanted me to learn German because that's what she studied.
I opted for Spanish and continued for three years.
In university, I was required to take a year of a
I returned to Hebrew and took another year-and-a-half
of it. Five
years later I moved to Sweden and made inroads towards
learning Swedish in the year-and-a-half I was there.
In 2007, I found myself living in Thailand, and by
2008, started teaching myself Thai.
When I moved to Bangkok in 2011, I enrolled for the
first time in an intensive Thai class.
Based on the description above, I must
sound like some kind of language guru.
That would be an exaggeration.
All I've ever done is be a student of languages.
I was never truly fluent in any of the languages I
learned, or if I was based on a more lenient definition of
fluency, I didn't remain fluent for very long.
I appreciate the mental rigor required
to learn a new language as an adult.
You can actually feel a muscle in your brain being
exercised in the process.
But I've come to appreciate something else, too.
A general desire to learn another language isn't
enough if true fluency is the desired end game.
You must also have a genuine need and/or a
clearly defined payoff that makes learning the language
worth the effort.
A payoff could be something like finally being able
to speak your spouse's mother tongue so as to be able to
understand her and her family better.
It could be a bump in qualifications that open up
more job opportunities for you and thus bring you more
In my past, there was no need to learn
the foreign languages.
What did I really need to learn Hebrew for at age
could function quite well without it and I couldn't see a
payoff in sight. This
Hebrew school phase was more like finishing army training.
I did it because I
was made to do it. Even
when I came back to Hebrew years later and was able to hold
a real conversation with an Israeli native, a friend of my
parents, there still wasn't a real need or payoff.
I wasn't planning to immigrate to Israel; I had no
Taking Spanish in high school was done more to satisfy a
college entrance requirement.
I grew up in Ohio, far from any Spanish-speaking
areas. A real
need to speak Spanish only arose during trips to Mexico
years later, and my spoken Spanish improved on those brief
trips beyond any skill level
I attained in high school.
In Sweden, my Swedish language acquisition abilities
were thwarted because I never really had to learn Swedish.
My job was in English, and all the Swedes spoke
decent enough English that they'd switch to English whenever
I tried to speak Swedish.
Thai, I thought, would be a different
This time not only would I be living in the country whose
language I was planning to learn, most Thais don't speak
English well enough to switch the conversation back to
English. I would
have considerable time to practice.
There was a need and a payoff.
Or was there?
Shortly after I got to Thailand, I met my girlfriend
(now my wife) and moved in with her in a resort community
250 km from Bangkok.
She isn't Thai.
At home, there was no need or possibility ever to speak Thai.
At her work, all communication is conducted in
English, even amongst the Thai staff.
It's company policy.
She desperately wanted to learn Thai but had no need
for it. Slowly,
I found out I didn't either.
Okay, I found out I had some
need for Thai, just not the need for fluency.
I have particular diet restrictions and felt it
advantageous to be able to read menus and request special
thought it would be useful to be able to read street signs
and make out labels in supermarkets.
So I learned how to do all these things to satisfy
Wanting to be able to conduct fluent conversations so I
could call up my internet company or phone company and
explain issues doesn't satisfy a real need in Thailand
companies now offer customer service in English.
When I started taking intensive writing
courses in Thai, I came to grips with the payoff.
To learn how to write a language well, you need to
read more of it, to see how the language is used in a
There were learning texts, but after I'd passed that
stage, I asked myself what else was there that I wanted to
be able to read in Thai.
The newspaper? Not really.
There are numerous English-language newspapers in
Thailand that I don't bother to read.
In my intensive class, another American guy was
busily translating the lyrics to pop songs and watching Thai
movies to improve his Thai.
He admitted that the songs and movies weren't very
good. They were
means to the end of becoming fluent.
Shouldn't it be the other way around?
Shouldn't fluency be the means to enjoy the Thai
music and movies?
Isn't that one of the payoffs in becoming fluent?
Not only can you converse with all the natives, you
can enjoy that nation's literature, cinema, music, what have
you, in its original state.
My wife and I have no close Thai
friends, a common phenomena among foreigners living in
Thailand, whatever you may think.
Neither of us are Thai or have an adopted Thai child
to anchor us into the culture.
We don't listen to
Thai pop, watch Thai soap operas,
or go to the cinema to see Thai movies.
Thai fluency wouldn't earn me a better salary.
An employer might offer me a job over someone else
if I spoke Thai and other applicants did not, but more
likely, if Thai were so essential to the job, the employer
would first seek to hire a Thai at a lower salary who'd also
studied English. There
are no works of literature in Thai that I desire to read,
even in English translation.
It's quite the opposite.
Thais desire to learn English so they can watch
American movies, listen to American ballads, and read
Learn English and the Beatles, Harry Potter, and the
Star Wars and Godfather films are available to
that pot of gold after I learn Thai?
Humans are adaptable creatures.
We can adapt to our environment, but we don't by
nature adapt more than we have to.
My Thai has gotten as good (or as bad) as it is based
on the amount of Thai I need to function adequately, though
not perfectly, in Thailand.
I would like to become far better, but unless there
is a real need or some clear cut benefit in it for me,
improvement isn't likely. I
realized I could study Thai 6 hours a day, but I would be
studying in a vacuum.
Without greater uses for Thai in my day-to-day life,
I would not be using it, and if a person doesn't use a
language, he loses it. The
foreigners in Thailand who've become masters at the language
had a need for fluency.
They were missionaries wishing to spread Christ's
word. Or single
males with a burning desire to be pros at seducing everyday
Thai females. Or
people who fell in love with Thailand and all aspects of its
culture immediately and knew they would not, could not, live
This is why most Americans aren't
have no need and no payoff. It's
easy for Europeans to
qualify as bilinguals.
Just insure that the foreign language they study is
today's global world, anyone with a desire for extended
travel, work or study abroad, or cross border friendships
immediately sees the payoff in learning English.
What foreign language could Americans learn that
would provide an equivalent payoff? None, Mandarin Chinese included.
English has become a bridge to the entire
Mandarin Chinese nor any other tongue will ever assume that
Even in Canada, an officially bilingual
country, only 35% of the population qualifies as true
Slightly more than half that bilingual total are from
Quebec province. The
majority of Canadians aren't fluent in French, despite
mandatory instruction in schools, since they have no need
for it. They
don't live in or near French-speaking areas; and if they do,
as in Montreal, they can still get by using English.
You would see similar low bilingual penetration rates
in the United States if tomorrow Spanish was forcibly
adopted as a second de facto language among all American
schools. Only in
those states with large Spanish-speaking populations and
areas would Spanish 'take.'
In 30 years' time, politicians will
still be yapping on about all the reasons Americans should
be learning foreign languages.
Unless those politicians can outline real needs and
real benefits for real people, all that yapping will still
be done in English.