Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Old Joke About a Person Who Speaks Only One Language?

You know the joke: "bilingual" is someone who speaks two languages, "trilingual" is someone who speaks three languages.  What do you call someone who can only speak one language?  An American.  Alas, it seems to be increasingly true.  I am astonished at how few of my students have studied any foreign language. 

I was looking at the University of Iceland's website, and I don't know whether to be shamed at how few Americans learn a foreign language, or engage in jingoistic "We're number 1" rhetoric:
The University of Iceland offers a diverse selection ofcourses taught in English. A few academic programmes are offered entirely in English, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and all schools offer single courses taught in English.
The University of Iceland works in an international environment, and cooperates with a multitude of international universities and research institutions on research, student exchanges, staff exchanges, and more. Hundreds of international students study at the university each year, and their numbers are growing. The University of Iceland is ambitious in attracting international students and scholars, and the number of single courses taught in English is steadily increasing.
I confess, every time that I see an Icelander interviewed, I am impressed with how flawless his English is.  Admittedly, Iceland was in some weird sense a protectorate of the United States for decades, with a huge U.S. Air Force base near Reykjavik.   


  1. In all fairness, we have a 3,000-mile-wide continent to play in where essentially everyone speaks English. A few years ago when I lived in the DC suburbs, I pointed out to a European colleague that I could drive a thousand miles in any direction (except east, obviously) and not have to worry about whether or not people would understand me, and pointed out that the results aren't the same in Europe.

    I took several years of Spanish in high school, although my vocabulary isn't large enough to be generally useful, but learning another language in the US isn't nearly as useful as it would be in most of the rest of the world. I would imagine that in Russia and China similar situations tend to apply. I look forward to Europeans complaining about the Chinese any day now.

  2. In addition to what Rick C, said:

    If you want to travel and be understood abroad...learn English. Speaking the wrong local language, or the local language the wrong way, can get you 1) no service 2) rude service, 3) shot, depending on locale.

    I learned French in H.S. and college, German while stationed in Germany, and a tiny bit of Arabic when in the mid-East, and it was all handy, but the most universal way that everyone communicated in all three places was English, often seriously fractured.

    I would be happy if American kids were taught a decent grasp of English, never mind learn some other language. If anything, go back in time a bit and give them a good grounding in latin -- the more I read and learn, the more I realize the wisdom of the "old school."

  3. Learning a foreign language pays dividend in learning English grammar.

  4. Iceland was somewhat more formally a protectorate of the U.S. during World War 2 - we occupied it *before we were at war*, taking over from the British. See

    Rick C - Chinese is not a single *spoken* language. Even Mandarin has dialects which are not intelligible across the area where Mandarin is the spoken language - probably a greater dialectical spread than between Australian, Southern, and Scots; if you add in the non-Mandarin dialects, it's like saying that Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian are all just dialects of Latin.

  5. I think it's less that Americans don't learn a foreign language - VA requires it in high school (2 years minimum, if I remember right), and I believe most other states do also - but that for most people it's immediately forgotten, mainly due to lack of use and need (and due to the sorry state of the modern US education system, but that's another issue). Like Rick C said, when you can travel 1000 miles in any direction and everybody at your destination still speaks English as their first language, there is little to no need to use it often enough to retain it.

  6. Virginia REQUIRES two years of a foreign language in high school? Wow.

    When I was in junior high in California, there was not a foreign language requirement, but the University of California required two years of foreign language to apply. Then they inexplicably dropped the requirement--and those of us taking a foreign language rapidly became unusual.

  7. I'll throw out a caveat here: It's entirely possible I'm misremembering, since high school was nearly 20 years ago.

    That being said, I'm pretty sure about it. At a minimum, I'd say that one year is required for everybody, and that I had to take two because I was on the "advanced" diploma track (a.k.a., the college prep track). But I'm 99% sure everybody had to take at least one year.

    I also know that when I lived in MN before moving to VA (back in 1990) there were language classes offered as early as 7th grade in the town I lived in.

  8. We certainly had language classes in seventh grade available to us. Amazingly enough, our junior high school offered not only German, French, and Spanish, but Latin and Greek as well. (After UC dropped the language requirement, and the number of foreign language classes dwindled, Greek and Latin went away.)

  9. Most people in other civilized countries speak English as a second language. No real need for an American to learn another language to travel in the world. It is nice to have a few polite phrases in the destination language but not necessary. HOWEVER in the USA it is becoming increasingly more important to have a working knowledge of spanish to talk to your employees. Sad.