The curious case of the “American language”

Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century.

While I wish I had come up with the above statement, I certainly fully support it. Because it is true. The last couple of days (the week following the 2014 Super Bowl) reminded me again of the validity of this statement. A commercial by a U.S.-based global soda maker aired during one of the breaks of this widely watched American Football event and it caused quite a stir. The ad used the song “America the Beautiful,” sung in various languages (including English), and images of the diverse people in the United States. You’ll find a YouTube clip of the commercial at the bottom of this post (for illustration purposes only – please note that I do not intend to advertise for this product).

USmonolingThe outrage over the ad first came via social media and eventually trickled down to traditional media outlets. Apparently there are a number of people in the United States who take offense to the multilingual approach of the clip, claiming that English was the default language of the country and that it was wrong for an American company to portray the country as one of many languages.

Aside from all the vile vitriol I found online and aside from all the political grandstanding that ensued, it would be worth taking a closer look at the actual linguistic diversity of the U.S. I found this article by the Pew Research Center which breaks down data from the 2011 American Community Survey:

21% of Americans age five or older speak a language other than English at home. Among this group, a majority say they speak English “very well” (58%), and 19% say they speak English “well.” Roughly one-in-seven (15%) of those who speak a language other than English at home say they do not speak English well, and 7% report having no English language skill at all.

According to these numbers, less than 5% of all Americans over five have an insufficient command of the English language. It is safe to assume that this segment consists mainly of new immigrants to the country who are still struggling with language acquisition. A situation that the overwhelming majority of all non-English speaking immigrants to the USA found themselves in throughout the history of this nation. Also a situation the native peoples of North America found themselves in after they lost control over their lands to the European settlers.

NonEnglishLangInUSIn order to succeed in the “new world” it was “learn English or be left behind.” Up to this day this is true in most areas of the U.S. While Spanish speakers are able to get by without any knowledge of English in certain states, social and professional upward mobility is limited without a certain grasp of the English language. As newcomers make America their new home, there has always been a generational lag of language acquisition: Mom and dad manage their lives with minimal or no English, their children learn it in school, become bilingual and eventually carry it into their homes. Then the third generation often did not learn the language of their ancestors any longer, since it was seen as a stigma in the American “melting pot.”

Notice that I used the past tense in the last sentence. Today many immigrants to the United States are trying to keep their native culture alive while blending in to the American mainstream, thus creating more of a mosaic than a melting pot. The English language is the common linguistic denominator, the second language is the membership card to a cultural subgroup. Both coexist in this diverse country.

So why the negative reception of the multilingual commercial? “America the Beautiful,” a country built upon immigration, a country which uses another country’s language (Great Britain) as its primary means of communication, a country which modified the English language in order to reflect the American spirit, a country known around the world for being flexible and embracing diversity – why would this America be opposed to the notion that there are languages other than English spoken among its people?

First of all, I would claim that it is only a small minority that has strong negative feelings towards the message of the spot. Secondly, I assume that those who are in fact offended by the ad do not speak any other language than English. Xenophobia is the fear of that which is foreign. It is a human instinct: We are sceptical of what we don’t know. People among us who speak a language we have no access to may be intimidating to some of us. I’m certainly not defending the “English only” crowd. But this specific case once again highlights the self-inflicted limitations of a society that places only a low value on foreign language skills.

Which brings me back to the statement at the beginning of this post. In a world that is increasingly interconnected, where people, goods, services, and information travel with ease, those people will be at a disadvantage who cannot communicate in at least one foreign language. Throughout the past 100 years the United States have been sheltered from the need to speak a second tongue in two ways: After the nation building of the 19th century the country now stretches from coast to coast on a vast land mass. Within this territory it simply isn’t necessary to speak a foreign language (even most of Canada speaks English). And after entering the first World War the U.S. became the dominant military and economic force on the planet. The world learned English in order to compete.

In fact, today in China alone there are some 300 million people who are studying English. That’s almost as much as the entire U.S. population. So why do I push for multilingualism, you ask?
Consider this: Communication among monolinguals will always be limited to the exchange of information within the group. No matter how well outsiders to this group speak that group’s language, there will always be a perception and behavior gap, based on the culture of the outsider. Therefore, monolinguals are limited to an insider’s point of view. However, being able to understand the outsider’s point of view and to see things from that person’s angle as well as from their own, would allow the insiders to connect better with other groups. That is, of course, only if the monolinguals see a benefit in connecting.
Since the proverbial business of America is business, connecting, trading, and selling to outsiders should probably be a priority for most people in this country. Which means that knowledge of other languages is an economic prerequisite – just like reading and writing your own.


Update: Stephanie Meade of InCultureParent created this beautiful response to the debate.

ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees overcome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!


2 thoughts on “The curious case of the “American language”

  1. Thank you Christian for these thoughts. It is true that monolinguals are missing out on an extra dimension that can enrich their lives immensely. They also cannot appreciate the blood sweat and tears the energy required to become proficient in a language other than their own. Yesterday I was at a conference and working with a group of students at Columbia Univ. Among the 50 students were Chinese, German, Korean, Indian, French, and of course US students. I am always amazed at how well the foreign students can communicate not only in English and their mother tongue but many times in a third language as well. This should be a lesson to us all. In the future being able to communicate in a foreign language will not be a luxury but a necessity

  2. As I try to learn more and improve the little bit of German I know by watching ZDF and ARD programming via iTune apps and Apple TV, I am amazed at how the English language has become so infused into the German language. The first one that caught my eye was the word “sorry.” Granted it is two syllables shorter than the German version but I still wonder how that word crept into the German language. There are many others of course. By the way, these shows on ZDF and ARD (without commercials) are just fantastic even though I struggle to understand a lot of what is being said and have to hit the pause button and look to my German wife for a translation. Interestingly enough, just like American television, they are dominated by cop shows.

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