Tag Archives: modern languages

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.