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Home / Politics  /
The Language Laggards
learning foreign languages

Where's Zulu?  You only pick up a second language if there's a need and/or benefit.  Desire by itself doesn't cut it.


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 languages.

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 language.  It's 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, right?"  No, what's embarrassing is that Obama bothered to say he was embarrassed.  This man has plenty of more important things to be embarrassed about. 

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 bilingual. 

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 Bilingual:  Life and Reality, estimates that 17% of the U.S. population is bilingual.   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 zone.  Tiny 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 Spanish, too.   They have to be at least bilingual.   

North America, as large as it may be, only has three languages spoken by any sizeable population group:  English, 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 Mexico.  These peoples' heritage and daily life involves Spanish, so they're effortlessly bilingual. 

Have a look at my personal experience learning foreign languages.  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 Hebrew school.   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 foreign language.  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 money. 

In my past, there was no need to learn the foreign languages.  What did I really need to learn Hebrew for at age six?   I 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 Israeli friends.  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 undertaking.  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 orders.  I 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 those needs.  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 today.  Those 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 conventional context.  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 American books.   Learn English and the Beatles, Harry Potter, and the Star Wars and Godfather films are available to you.  Where's 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 anywhere else. 

This is why most Americans aren't bilingual.  They have no need and no payoff.  It's easy for Europeans  to qualify as bilinguals.  Just insure that the foreign language they study is English.  In 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 world.  Mandarin Chinese nor any other tongue will ever assume that role. 

Even in Canada, an officially bilingual country, only 35% of the population qualifies as true bilinguals.   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.

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