Europeans have a perception of people from the U.S. as monolinguals. You can add this to the list of things about which the United States should make you ashamed (as though the 45th were not enough).

A popular stereotype of Americans traveling abroad is the tourist who is at a loss when it comes to coping with any language other than English. Fair or not, the fact is that while the U.S. does not have a national requirement for students to learn a foreign language in school, the typical European pupil must study multiple languages in the classroom before becoming a teen.

Kat Devlin, “Learning a foreign language a ‘must’ in Europe, not so in America,” Fact Tank: News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, July 13th, 2015

Unfortunately, the stereotype that people in the U.S. speak only English is justified.

This raises the question whether the fast-food, on-demand, “buy now; think later” culture prevalent in the United States poses an inherent obstacle to language learning–an endeavor that by nature does not lend itself to immediate gratification. The former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, said this about language learning:

“Language acquisition is a marathon, not a sprint.”

~Leon Panetta, August 6th, 2018, The San Francisco Chronicle

And it’s a marathon people in the U.S. have demonstrated they are not only ill-equipped for, but willfully resistant to addressing.

The whole world mocks us, and they kind of have a point. There are definitely other cultures that are bad with second languages, and not all of them are even Anglophones. But Americans often take such a deep pride in being monolingual that it’s a viable source of mockery for the billions of people around the world who see language as one of the greatest gifts and necessities we have as people. And I am more defensive than anyone when it comes to unjust American-bashing, but here, it’s really hard to argue with the judgment.

Chelsea Fagan, “17 Reasons Americans Should Be Embarrassed They Only Speak English,” Thought Catalog, March 19th, 2014

Why don’t Americans learn other languages?

Part of the problem may be convincing Americans that language learning plays an important role in education. One explanation for Americans’ ambivalence regarding the importance of learning second languages could be the ubiquity of English media in the world:

The predominance of English as the world’s lingua franca may … play a role in low foreign language learning in anglophone countries – according to a 2016 Pew report, only 36% of Americans consider a foreign language an extremely or very important skill to succeed in today’s economy.

Claudia Civinini, “Europe is leaving US behind on language learning,” The PIE News, August 16, 2018.

Lack of exposure to foreign languages contributes to the problem:

Most Americans don’t have strong incentives to learn a foreign language. Because U.S. identity is not rooted in a single ethnicity or race, some Americans believe national unity requires a national language and see English as a unifying bond. Also, millions of Americans live in states that do not border any non-English-speaking countries or populations. The fact that English is predominantly used in international trade, in many professions and on the Internet further lessens Americans’ incentive to learn other languages.

Yet foreign languages will become more not less important in a globalized world

If Americans want the next generation to be active participants in a multilingual world, dual-language and multicultural education is crucial.

Bénédicte de Montlaur, “Do You Speak My Language? You Should,” The New York Times, March 26th, 2019

According to Leon Panetta, a former Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA , language learning plays an integral role for both national defense and business:

By the time we educate and train the experts we need to help us address a particular language gap, we are often too late. The crisis has shifted. Others have captured the new market. […]
we have a responsibility to ourselves and to future generations — as parents, educators, policymakers, and leaders in business and government — to support language learning in the United States, and to foster and reward language competency.

By Leon Panetta, “Americans are losing out because so few speak a second language,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 6th, 2018

And it gets worse …

According to the Modern Language Association, enrollment in college-level foreign-language courses dropped 9.2 percent from 2013 to 2016.
The association says these changes are most likely a direct result of the 2008 recession, which hit foreign-language degree programs harder than many other humanities programs. As programs shrink so does the supply of qualified teachers. It’s a vicious cycle.

Bénédicte de Montlaur, “Do You Speak My Language? You Should,” The New York Times, March 26th, 2019

So “What do you call someone who speaks only one language?” Sadly, the answer is an American.

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