General Question

Captain_Tetanus's avatar

Why aren't American bilingual, or trilingual?

Asked by Captain_Tetanus (205 points ) March 28th, 2008

We have a decent public education system. We live on a continent where French, English, and Spanish are the main spoken languages. We should at least be bilingual here.

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27 Answers

cwilbur's avatar

Those Americans that benefit from being bilingual—largely, the ones that grew up in families and communities where a language besides English is the dominant one—are bilingual, by and large.

Why should someone who has no interest in travelling more than 50 miles from home and who uses only English in his day to day interactions invest years of effort into becoming fluent in a second language? What good does it do him?

(For the record, I speak two languages, can get by in one more, and read and write a dead language, so I’m doing my best to bring up the average.)

bob's avatar

You’ll find lots of bilingual speakers in areas of the country where Spanish is spoken extensively. But knowing Spanish or French doesn’t have the daily utility that would make lots of people learn it.

We do teach Spanish and French extensively in schools. But we’ll only achieve fluency in languages that we actually use. It’s great to know more languages, but it’s not difficult to understand why Americans are mostly fluent only in English.

I’m skeptical of the suggestion that we “should” be bilingual based on the questioner’s criteria.

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

We are so busy working and “entertaining” ourselves and caught up in society, that most people dont care to further educate themselves, as long as they are getting buy.

As Einstein said, ” No one would have been taken seriously who failed to acknowledge the quest for objective truth and knowledge as man’s highest and eternal aim”

soundedfury's avatar

I agree with cwilbur. Necessity and opportunity is the reason that many people are bilingual. We live in a country where we don’t need to be bilingual and there is little opportunity more much of the country to actively use the skill if we do acquire it.

henry_david's avatar

Look at Europe. It’s small and all of the countries are very close together. They must know more than their mother tongue to get by day-to-day. As Americans, we are in such a large nation that knowing more than one language is often not necessary.

Noon's avatar

First of as a son of immigrants to America, I am an American who is Bilingual (well tri, and some but who’s counting)

I think it has to do with location an size. We are huge, and we speak the current lingua franca. (It saddens me that English is the lingua franca, but eh, what can I do) As an american there is very little need to learn another language. Even if you do end up taking a foreign language, which is taught so poorly in America, your chances of actually using it daily is rare.

And this concept of only Americans being monolingual is kinda false. Take Spain for example. A country with a decent economy and with a language that is well known internationally, as a result many spaniards are monolingual. But move over just one country west, and you have Portugal. Smaller, less economic power, not as well known a language, and a much larger percentage of polyglots.

Smaller linguistic communities in general have to be poly-lingual. The Catalan speaking community of Spain is, for the most part, bilingual.

That all being said, I think regardless of wether or not your environment requires it of you, there are plenty of benefits to speaking more than one language. Just having two different ways to approach thought is reason enough.

paulc's avatar

I live in a pretty monolingual province but I attended French immersion for most of my schooling. While its not been a huge asset around here its been a great asset elsewhere. Travelling I found it immensely rewarding to be able to converse with that many more people. Its also a great exercise mentally – thinking in another language can make your gears turn differently. Brain yoga.

@Noon, I’d give you two great answers if I could: one for your answer and one for using “polyglot”.

yoyo's avatar

the same reason that most Americans don’t own a passport, and the same reason most Americans are overweight, figured it out yet?

TennesseeTeacake's avatar

im trilingual.
english
spanish
greek

allen_o's avatar

@yoyo – being lazy?

A_man's avatar

Americans are spoiled and no longer ambitious,, thats why a lot of small businesses are owned by people from other countrys.. Americans settle to work for somebody else…

soundedfury's avatar

Who the hell marked yoyo, allen_o and A_man as “Good Answer”? Those aren’t answers to the question at all, they’re opinions based on perceived stereotypes with no factual backing.

henry_david's avatar

Because there’re a lot of anti-Americanites floating through American-made sites such as this….

henry_david's avatar

No, seriously. Many are simply misinformed and probably have a stereotype of the “average American” from either foreign-exchange students or limited contact with Americans during a stay or visit to the States.

A_man's avatar

@ henry-David…. Is it true or not true that our “American school system” does not teach our students to go into business for themselves? Thats done on purpose!..our school system trains EMPLOYEES!! .. To work for big businesses…

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

Obey authority, 8–4 is not my time, don’t think on my own, work for someone…. That’s what I feel I got out of high school. I graduated in 2000 in NJ

Captain_Tetanus's avatar

I’m an American, I work for myself. Most of my friends work for themselves, my parents work for themselves, my best friend and her dad work for themselves. I’m so sick of the Americans are lazy crap. Some Americans are lazy, but most aren’t. Are you telling me if I go to France I’m not going to find a hearty helping of lazy slobs sitting on their couches eating hot pockets or whatever the french equivalent is? And that everyone in Saudi Arabia is slim and fit and working hard. Even America’s fat people aren’t simply fat because they’re lazy. Have you seen what is passed off as food in schools? Reagan offically made ketchup a vegetable! So we eat garbage as kids and we’re forced to sit on our butts from 8 to 4 pretty much from the time we’re five up until we’re 18. We may have a stupid government and whomever is in charge of the education system may be on crack but Americans are not lazy as a whole!

I agree totally with A man and Chris6137. As someone who went to private school until 8th grade I was horrified when I saw how bad public school was. American schools punish independant thought. American students are taught to follow a schedule, to do as they’re told, to use the bathroom when given permission, and to fight the urge to walk out of a boring room. After 13 years of this who has initiative? You’re taught to sit and do as you’re told, that’s what you’re going to do after graduation. For a country that’s supposed to free, America is NOT free. And on a side note, there’s a reason a coach taught government, so no one would know anything about government!

I disagree with the people who’ve said Americans don’t learn other languages because they don’t need it. I need Spanish all the time. I’ve needed German and French and whichever language Hmong folks are speaking.

Americans don’t get passports because America is big and Canada is only now requiring them.

I really agree with whoever said languages that are taught in America are taught poorly. I dropped my high school German class because the teacher was mispronouncing words. My best friend took 2 years of French and she knows nothing. We were in Canada back in college and she couldn’t even read the restaraunt menu. I even knew enough for that with no French class. Americans need Spanish. That’s just a fact.
We’re a bilingual country where most people are bilingual. Odd situation to be in.

Angelina's avatar

I heard a great quote once, in response to the question: “Why should Americans who will never leave the country learn a foreign language?” The answer the person gave was: “That’s precisely why they should.”

The advantage to learning a foreign language is not just that you may find it useful someday when travelling, but rather that it gets you to think critically about your native language, culture and practices while exposing you to new authors, films, culture, history and ways of seeing the world.

cheebdragon's avatar

i agree! more people in America should learn how to speak English!

Ken00bi's avatar

Hey Henry,

Europe is not small. Of course there is not a country like the size of the US in Europe, but don’t think it’s small by any means. Countries like France or Ukraine are Texas size.
Sure there are also little countries like mine (Netherlands) but all together they make a vast continent that’s bigger than Australia.

I’ve noticed that people in smaller countries like the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark tend to speak more languages than people from bigger countries, like Germany and the US. Perhaps they don’t feel the need because they somehow expect that foreigners will speak their language. Which is true most of the time. And believe me, to become fluent in another language takes a lot of effort!

jonno's avatar

Most of the English-speaking areas are mostly monolingual because English is the lingua franca of today’s world.

Say if you are an Italian (born and living in Italy), and you want/need to learn a language. You already know Italian, of course. So what language are you going to learn? English. And because everyone “needs” to learn English, there are more opportunities to do so.

Now say you are English (born and living in England), and you want/need to learn a language – what language are you going to learn? French? Japanese? German? Italian? Spanish? There is not one obvious language to learn, because you would already speak the “main” language – English. So why learn a language at all?

(This is the general thought process a lot of people have. I’m not saying it isn’t worth learning a language if you already know English, I think it is very important if you want to integrate in another non-English speaking country.)

Response moderated
stephen's avatar

chinese , english

Poser's avatar

@ the poop master—I grew up in Texas and didn’t need Spanish until I went to Spain. I probably learned more in my few days there than I did in two and a half years of High School Spanish.

I would love to learn another language, but since I don’t have the opportunity to travel extensively right now, fear I’d just be wasting my time and money on something I’d never use. When I get a chance to spend an extended period of time in another country, I’ll have a chance and a need to learn.

jvgr's avatar

No No No.
Being officially bilingual is expensive.
All labels have to be bilingual and usually that means print size goes down and it gets really hard to read the super tiny ingredients.
Then there will have to be a separate governmental bureaucracy staffed to process all governmental forms…that arrive or are sent in the other language.
Then some state will decide that the other language is the “official” language of the state and make everybody residing there conform…

I’m all for learning as many languages a person likes to learn, but don’t let the government get involved.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Personally I don’t see the point. Speaking in different languages makes things more complicated, just like having many different currencies. But, since the planet can’t agree on which language or currency we should all use, we do the best we can. At least in this country, we don’t have that problem because we can go our whole lives knowing just English and using dollars. Those who want Americans to be bilingual are just trying to create a problem that, as of now, doesn’t exist. Sure, we have an upsurge of illegal immigrants from Mexico right now. In the 80’s, we had an influx of Vietnamese immigrants. But now, the children of those Vietnamese immigrants speak English, and I can guarantee that their children will not know any Vietnamese – just like all of the other immigrants who have come here from all over the world for the past couple of hundred years.

Don’t get me wrong, those who enjoy learning different languages should do so. No knowledge gained is ever a waste.

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