April 5, 2002

Commentary

Ending English Monolingualism?

By Domenico Maceri, PhD

Ambassadors from France, Germany, Italy, and Spain recently criticized the sad state of teaching foreign languages in Great Britain. According to the diplomats, British companies would not lose some contracts if their employees had strong skills in foreign languages.

Being tongue-tied seems to be a disease affecting not just the British but English-speakers in general. This is certainly true of Americans. An old joke goes like this:

—What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual.

—A person who speaks two languages? Bilingual.

—And a person who speaks only one language? American.

Given the predominance of English as the de facto world’s lingua franca, why would English speakers want to learn another language? Let the others learn English.

This strategy is, of course, a huge mistake, for in spite of the importance of English in today’s global affairs, a second, and even a third, language is crucial and in some cases indispensable.

The benefits of linguistic knowledge are evident even in a country such as the US, where English is clearly king. In Florida, Hispanic families speaking only English averaged a yearly income of $32,000, while those speaking both Spanish and English had incomes of $50,376, according to a study conducted by

the University of Florida.

Big corporations in the US use Spanish because it translates into dollars. Major US and international companies advertise heavily on Spanish language television and radio as they try to attract more business.

The Japanese, whose economy depends a lot on exports, are only too familiar with the importance of languages. Asked what is the most important language in the world, Japanese businessmen responded “the customers’ language.” In essence, it’s possible to buy without knowing a language, but if you are going to sell, you better learn about your customer.

Although more than 80 per cent of websites are in English, only 43 per cent of the users are native speakers of English. That number is expected to go down to 35 per cent next year. Clearly, some companies are losing business because the information does not reach a considerable amount of the world’s population. This situation is likely to worsen, as computers become more readily available in non-English-speaking countries.

English-speaking countries can improve their success in international business by producing internationally-trained employees. Designing and marketing products all over the world requires linguistic and cultural knowledge which goes beyond English. To get these kinds of employees the educational system needs to be revised to incorporate the study of foreign languages from the early grades, continuing on to college.

The advantages of bilingualism affect the entire education of students. Students educated in more than one language develop a mental agility that monolinguals lack. One of these advantages has to do with something researchers call a “plasticity” of the brain. Bilingual children recognize that just as there are two ways to say something, there are also two ways to learn and solve problems. This mental agility is evident in learning foreign languages. Just as it’s easier for someone who knows how to play a musical instrument to learn a second and a third, thus it is also easier for someone who knows a second language to learn a third, or even a fourth.

Learning Pashto or Dari, the two major languages of Afghanistan, would be very difficult for monolingual English-speakers. For someone who knows French and Spanish in addition to English, the new language, while still a challenge, would certainly be a lot easier, and the time to achieve fluency could be cut considerably.

Standardized tests confirm the intellectual ability of bilingual versus monolingual children. According to a 14-year study by George Mason University, in Virginia, students educated in dual-language schools outperformed their peers in monolingual English schools.

Although a wind of monolingualism has been blowing in the US as some states are dropping bilingual education designed to help immigrant kids and English is declared the official language, some positive signs are beginning to occur. Dual language schools, which teach subjects in two languages, are increasing. There are more than 300 such schools in the US and the numbers, though still small, have been going up rapidly, increasing by more than two-thirds since 1992. Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley called on the nation to nearly quadruple the number of dual-language schools to 1,000 within five years.

Another sign that the linguistic situation in the US is improving is George Bush’s use of Spanish. Although the president’s Spanish is far from perfect, the fact that the President at times speaks Spanish is significant. It sends a message to all Americans about the value of bilingualism.

The events of 9-11 revealed the need for more knowledge of languages. For example, after the tragedy in New York, enrollments in Arabic courses in US colleges and universities rose dramatically.

Curing English-speakers’ monolingualism will not be easy, for people have to see that learning something is beneficial. Unfortunately, the power of the English language clouds the vision of those who learned this language as natives. Seeing the world more clearly requires more than the English lens.Curing English-speakers’ mono-lingualism will eventually have another positive effect—it will reveal the common humanity we share regardless of what language we may speak.

Domenico Maceri (dmaceri@aol.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.

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