The United States–Land of the Second Language Illiterates

Approximately 80% of American citizens are monolingual, and the largest part of the rest are immigrants and their children. This statistic from Russell Berman, outgoing President of the MLA, in his valedictory message to the MLA convention in Seattle this past January. Berman’s address is a rousing and also practical defense of the humanities in general, and especially of the role of second language learning in developing a society fully capable of engaging the global culture within which it is situated. From his address:

Let us remember the context. According to the National Foreign Language Center, some 80% of the US population is monolingual. Immigrant populations and heritage speakers probably make up the bulk of the rest. Americans are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates, thanks largely to the mismanagement of our educational system from the Department of Education on down. In the European Union, 50% of the population older than 15 reports being able to carry on a conversation in a non-native language, and the EU has set a goal of two non-native languages for all its citizens.

Second language learning enhances first language understanding: many adults can recall how high school Spanish, French, or German—still the three main languages offered—helped them gain a perspective on English—not only in terms of grammar but also through insights into the complex shift in semantic values across cultural borders. For this reason, we in the MLA should rally around a unified language learning agenda: teachers of English and teachers of other languages alike teach the same students, and we should align our pedagogies to contribute cooperatively to holistic student learning. We are all language teachers. For this reason, I call on English departments to place greater importance on second language knowledge, perhaps most optimally in expectations for incoming graduate students. Literature in English develops nowhere in an English-only environment; writing in any language always takes place in a dialectic with others. With that in mind, I want to express my gratitude to the American Studies Association for recently adopting a statement supportive of the MLA’s advocacy for language learning.

Berman goes on to recognize, however, that this strong and reasonable call for educated people to be conversant in more than one language is largely sent echoless in to the void. Less than .1% of the discretionary budget of the Department of Education goes to support Language learning. Indeed, I suspect this is because so many of us, even in higher education, are dysfunctional in a second language. I often tell people grimly that I can ask how to go to the bathroom in four different languages.

Nevertheless, in an age where we call for global engagement and in which we imagine the importance of preparedness for a global marketplace and want our students to be citizens of the world, it is irresponsible to continue to imagine that world will conveniently learn to speak English for our sakes.


2 thoughts on “The United States–Land of the Second Language Illiterates

  1. Markus

    Europe is different from the States, as it is smaller, more tightly packed, and is the home to many “indigenous” language. Should we travel from Maine to Pennsylvania, we will cover only a geographic distance, without changing any lingistic one (maybe PA Gemans would be an exception). If we apply the same distance yardstick to Europe, we might be able to travel from Greece up to Austria, therefore covering the living area of at least six languages. Life necessity has taught Europeans that, if they want to communicate, they simply have to become polylingual. Another difference is that Europe has never been a true melting pot like the States; there is no “umbrella” language like English is here. With the latest advent of European integration, each new EU state gets to keep its native language as a new official language of the European Union. True, the Europeans will be spending tons of euros on keeping up with its translation services, but that is the European way.

    I admit our education system scores miserably low on the incorporations of foreign languages. Maybe only Spanish has some future here, since there is a considerable populus who speak this language in the States. Apropos, I was just speaking to my younger son a few days ago. He is so sad because he enjoys learning Spanish, but our school district has laid off his Spanish teacher. This may be a good example to consider how much we invest in our foreign language “future.”

  2. bibliopirate

    I’ll admit that I’m only literate in one language, I’m trying to fix that. I can certainly tell it is a handicap, and certainly made me feel handicapped while living in New York and working in theater, where a lot of the people I would meet would be from another country and fluent in English and their native tongue.


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