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Still Tongue-tied in America

by Tom Thompson

It's no secret that for many years bilingualism, and the even more unusual, multilingualism, in the U.S. were so rare that the meaning of the terms often required some explanation. As a high school student in the Midwest, I remember painfully explaining to my parents that there was no need to worry about the possibility that I would eventually be "multi-lingual." Not understanding the term, used by one of my teachers, they were worried about a possible speech defect.

More seriously, my father tried to dampen my enthusiasm for foreign languages by stating matter-of-factly that "English was good enough for Jesus Christ, and so that ought to be good enough for you." A World War 2 veteran, he also suggested that speaking a foreign language in his house was, well, unpatriotic. Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that as recently as 2003 a father in Nebraska was threatened by a judge with loss of the right to visit his child if he didn't speak English during his visits.

Fortunately times have changed. Or have they? Americans are now often told that we are at a comparative disadvantage because of our lazy monolingualism, most recently by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, himself a monolinguist. Pimseleur promises miraculous speed learning for foreign language acquisition. And there are plenty of people who think that Rosetta Stone is a quick "language in a box" consumable and know little, if anything, about the historical origin of the trademark. Private bilingual school programs, of course, have gotten lots of publicity. But, more generally, the private elementary schools are over three times more likely than public elementary schools to offer foreign language instruction.

Government at all levels has reduced its support for foreign language instruction. The number of public elementary schools, for example, that offer foreign language education has declined from 25% in 1999 to 15% in 2010. In all middle schools, the number decreased from 75 to 58 percent. Only high schools have held steady at language learning with 90% or so offering foreign language options. Looking at College Board AP scores for Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese, it appears that only about 8,000 graduating high school students annually have seriously studied a foreign language. In contrast, five times as many students reach that level on the tougher of the two calculus AP exams.

Fluency in a foreign language is hard work, with success coming mainly from repeated exposure and practice. I've told many high school students that the neural pathways in our brains for any simple skill, using chopsticks, playing a musical instrument, or speaking any language requires paying attention and consistent discipline. Even crazy smart, there's no other way. That's a message not always well received.

Still there's widespread recognition that competence in a foreign language has become fashionable for success with college admission applications. There's even a resume consultant who includes in his skills offering how to showcase foreign language ability. A recent study even found that "fluent" in a foreign language was one of the words on a resume that's most likely to impress a hiring manager. My own impression is that the related, sudden widespread claims of foreign language fluency are mostly wishful thinking, but more often self-deception and gross exaggeration. It's become true that a second language is a good way for job applicants to stand out from the crowd. There's even growing evidence that bilinguals think more analytically. Parts of the bilingual's brain devoted to memory, reasoning, and planning become larger than those of a monolingual.

It's in this context that I'm often leery of somebody who claims "to know" this or that language. I've met too many would-be linguists who find no hesitation in facing the pain of opening their mouths in a wholesale risk of incriminating imperfection, if not disaster. So maybe I should not have been surprised when a new director of an international affairs office at an unnamed U.S. Government agency claimed to speak Spanish. At a meeting with a group of Latin American diplomats, he could not follow the most basic of conversations, and then feigned surprise that he understood nothing. Fortunately I wasn't depending on him to navigate a clear path through any diplomatic maze.

But apparently his dishonesty is contagious. His top adviser, Hispanic-American, claimed to be fluent in Spanish, too, but then had to argue that his Spanish was "rusty" when he needed linguistic rescue at a local food truck over a simple taco order. Easy arrogance is no substitute for the hard work of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax, among other things. That's true for youngsters as well as for adults.

It's probably only realistic to accept without protest that there's a growing market in the U.S. for the computer program called Monolingual. Automatically it retains everything in English but frees up your computer's memory by removing data the computer uses only when supporting a foreign language. My parents would have liked that.

About the writer

Tom Thompson writes often on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, DC.

Aritcles by Tom Thompson

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