Q – What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
A – bilingual
Q – What do you call someone who speaks three or more languages?
A – a polyglot
Q – What do you call someone who speaks just one language?
A – an American
I remember laughing when I heard that joke. It’s kind of funny, and it’s mainly also true. But, it’s kind of unfair how some people consider Americans to be stupid because of their lack of linguistic diversity. There are a few reasons that most Americans only know English (or in some cases, Spanish). Yes, there are some people who come here from other countries and continue to only speak their native language. However, I’m talking about people who spend all or most of their lives here.
I saw something in an article recently about how little exposure people in this country have to language education. Compared to many other countries, there is relatively little instruction in secondary schools, and often none in Elementary schools, despite the fact that it’s much easier to acquire language skills at very young ages. I think I read that age 8 or below is the ideal time to learn languages. Unfortunately, the older you get, the more difficult it is to pick up new languages. Other than reasons such as limited offerings in the classroom, there are additional factors that contribute to our mainly “English only” population.
The United States is very large. Except for people on the outer boundaries of this country, many of us could travel for hours without leaving the United States (and consequently, always be in English-speaking territory). In many other parts of the world, it’s possible to drive a short distance and be in an area where another language is spoken. In some cases, if you just travel in different directions, you’ll encounter several different languages. Being in that type of environment, it’s almost a matter of survival to have at least some grasp of the language(s). It’s also very practical, since being in such close proximity would most likely result in frequent encounters with people who speak other languages, either because you were visiting their countries, or because they would be visiting yours.
Another factor is that it’s almost unnecessary to learn another language even when traveling. English seems to have become the new lingua franca. While it’s definitely a good idea to learn at least a few key phrases in whatever language is commonly spoken where you are visiting, it’s becoming less of an absolute necessity. People in many countries, used to having tourists, have learned to speak and understand at least some English. English is routinely taught in many countries at an early age, in the classrooms. So, as a tourist, most of your needs and wants would be understood.
However, there are still many reasons to learn other languages. Some of them are cultural. Most people will treat you better if you take the time to at least attempt to communicate with them in their language. You’ll have better luck communicating – of course, the more vocabulary you have in common, the easier it is to make your thoughts known. Even if a conversation has to involve a mixture of two languages! Also, there have been studies that show that understanding more than one language actually helps us to form neural pathways in the brain. Basically, the skills needed to learn a second (or third, or fourth…) language can enrich our thought processes. From my limited knowledge of other languages, I can also tell you that it can enrich your life in other ways. It’s difficult to explain the feeling I get when I can ‘hear’ new things in songs I listen to, for example. Even when I don’t understand most of the lyrics in Spanish, French, or whatever else, I enjoy the song so much more when I can pick out a few words or phrases; or when I can understand something written or spoken. I also feel that the more I learn about any other language, the more I get from English.
For many reasons, I’m happy that I have been exposed to more than just English. I don’t consider myself to be fluent in anything besides English, but I have been able to communicate with people because of the little I do know, and can sometimes glean a little information from things in writing. I have been working on expanding my knowledge, and hope to accomplish even more in the future.