Why Do Americans Struggle with Foreign Languages?

It is a common lament, both within the United States and abroad, that Americans lag far behind Europeans in foreign language skills. As far as stereotypes go, it is a pretty well-founded one. Most Americans do not even study a foreign language in school, and I know many who took French or Spanish for years and can barely hack a sentence together. This certainly has not always been the case- a century ago, America was probably one of the most polyglot nations in the world- so why is it now?

Of course, we must first acknowledge that as English speakers, Americans win the jackpot in the lottery of linguistic life. All the television, music, news, and anything else one would want is ubiquitously available in their native tongue. Even when they do leave their vast native country, which most Americans do only a few times in their lives, they can easily get around with English. Except, of course, for those who grow up in immigrant households, there is just no compelling reason to learn a new language.

Many Americans even take a certain pride in their refusal to speak any other language. I spent much of the past winter working remotely in Miami (which is aptly referred to as the capital of Latin America), and met some people who were impressively fluent in Spanish, yet avoided speaking it. I thought often of the stark contrast to my most recent visit to Germany, when my relatives constantly prodded my young cousins to sharpen their skills by speaking English with me.

To be fair, for all English’s advantages, it is also something of an outlier among Western European languages. Spaniards can easily pick up Italian, or Germans Dutch, but English speakers face a pretty steep learning curve. The same issue helps explain why Czechs are so much more linguistically talented than Hungarians, or Indians than Chinese.

It is also not entirely unique to America. Like so many other Anglo-Saxon stereotypes, it is similarly applied to Britons. Brazilians are even worse, and pretty much every East Asian nation worse still. A few years ago, a Canadian politician saw his rising star fall because he refused to learn French. And then there is the bizarre case of the French themselves, who revel simultaneously in cosmopolitanism, and in the most stridently unfriendly language chauvinism anywhere in the world.

Part of the blame also lies with America’s language education. It is atrocious. I personally attest that I probably learned more in a summer Erasmus program in Berlin than in two years at Columbia. Students often spend years memorising arcane grammar rules before ever being expected to have a conversation. This curriculum may be appropriate for Latin, but not so much for its living descendants.

Some Americans believe in offering education in other languages, particularly Spanish, to those who do not speak English natively. It is, of course, nice to embrace diversity and make people feel welcome. But virtue can be turned to vice.

Today’s Americans take the benefits of linguistic unity for granted, and assume monoglottism is a shortcoming. But it is worth flipping this entire issue on its head. In many countries around the world, language is extremely divisive. In Africa, people typically prefer to do official business in English (or French or Portuguese), which no community speaks natively, to avoid conflict. Even in enlightened Western nations like Belgium, Canada, and Spain, language imposes a towering barrier between people. Elsewhere, things often get bloody.

America used to have these sorts of problems. Nativist politicians had a field day with voters fed up with the fact that they could not get around a swath of Lower Manhattan without speaking German. Until shockingly recently, the Ku Klux Klan ran wild in snow-white Maine trying to chase out the French. The victims of the biggest lynching in US history were Italian.

Many European countries, which had negligible historic experience of large-scale migration, are experiencing this sort of problems now. Whatever some Fox pundits may tell you, it is vanishingly hard to find a community in the United States where you cannot get by with the national language. Not so across the pond. I have visited areas of many European cities, from Luton to Milan, where things are otherwise. There is even a disturbing trend of de-assimilation. In Berlin, I lived in a mostly-Turkish housing estate, where many third- or fourth-generation young people could barely speak German. Today the historic Paris suburb of Saint-Denis is a glimpse of an alternative history where the Battle of Tours went differently.

This is not even to say anything of countries with multiple native language communities. It sounds cool that many Swiss people speak at least two of their country’s four languages, plus English. It is less cool for, to take an example, Belgium, which is basically a linguistic apartheid state where in the past few decades alone three national governments have been brought down because residents of various small towns wanted to speak French instead of Dutch.

Today, America’s second-most popular language by far is Spanish. But a growing number of Latino Americans speak only English. (Whatever else we may think of it, the growing share of Latinos who ticked the box for Donald Trump in last year’s US presidential election suggests surprising assimilation to a certain brand of Americanism). A few years ago, Apple released a very helpful Spanglish keyboard to accommodate the millions of Americans who speak both languages, often within the same sentence.

Learning and speaking multiple languages is awesome, and Americans should try to catch up in our age of globalisation. But they should not forget to celebrate the continuing triumph of assimilation that makes their country unique.

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets