The Monolingual Problem

7741310So far in my life I have studied 7 languages. I am “professionally proficient” in 2 besides being a native speaker of Danish. I studied Linguistics in college, and I am currently training to be a Spanish teacher.

I hear this a lot:

Wow, 7 languages, that’s incredible. I wish I could speak another language. I just don’t have an ear for it.

You can, and you do.

The whole concept of monolingualism is relatively new, and relatively isolated. By which I mean it is very modern-day American. By which I mean the rest of the world, and history, proves that everyone is able to learn another language, or, indeed, many other languages.

Historically scholars, merchants, politicians, and anyone who needed to travel or have influence spoke multiple languages. It was a necessity. If you came across someone with whom you needed to have a conversation, with whom you needed to barter goods, or over whom you wanted influence, you had to be able to speak his/her language – or at least a language you had in common.languages

Ben Franklin spoke German, Italian and French.

It used to be that in order to receive a Ph.D. you had to deliver your dissertation in your native language as well as Latin.

Geographically, monolingualism is pretty unusual. Foreign language education starts in 5th or 6th grade in many European countries, and by the time students graduate they have taken classes in 2-3 foreign languages. In many Asian and South Asian countries bilingualism, at the very least, is a necessity given the popularity of “official” languages and “regional” languages. Many Latin American countries have heavy Spanish/Indigenous bilingual populations. Africa, depending on the region, is highly linguistically diverse and there, too, being a polyglot to some extent is a necessity.

Learning another language is all about exposure and attitude. You should expose yourself as much as possible to the language you want to learn, and you have to approach it with an attitude that learning it is perfectly within your reach. I’m not saying it won’t be difficult and I’m not saying everybody learns the same way, or at the same speed. I am saying everyone can learn.

4e653fdbbcbc9Some, though by no means all, in America have the attitude that given the country’s power and influence there is no need to speak any language besides English. And it so happens that the foreign language that most non-English speakers learn first is English. Nevertheless, there is a need. Even if an American never travels outside the country, it is increasingly true that they will inevitably come across someone in the country who does not speak English. America is a country of many tongues – and to make it perfectly clear, it is a country without an official language.

Why should anyone bother?

Because everyone should have a voice. If you want to be heard, if you want to have a say and have influence, you must speak another language. You can have the most compelling and well-formed argument in the world, and it’ll fall on deaf ears if your audience does not speak your language.


2 responses to “The Monolingual Problem

  1. There is so much value in learning a different language. It opens up your ability to communicate to millions of people around the world. However, it takes active work. Having grown up in a Filipino household, I was exposed to my parents’ dialect my entire life. I can understand a lot, but I can’t speak it because I only spoke English with my parents. Filipinos are usually fluent in 2-3 languages (Filipino, English and a provincial dialect depending on the area). English is the reason you’ll find Filipinos everywhere. You can’t doubt the power of English, but it’s an amazing intellectual/ cultural experience learning another language. Right now, I’m studying Japanese while teaching English is Japan. It’s so rewarding being able to communicate with a different type of people. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I know language study will be a lifetime practice of mine.

  2. Pingback: Le Mouton Noir de ma Famille: In Which I Discuss the Living Bilingually in a Monolingual Household | The Curious Alouette!·

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