Why Can’t Americans Learn Other Languages?
Around the world, its a well known fact that Americans are some of the worst language learners in the world. Is it nature? Is it nurture?
I have observed four things which I believe make us the way we are:
#1 Childhood and Education
Lets start by examining the typical American childhood. Our education system is focused on well-roundedness, which is a wonderful thing. However, there are some dangerous omissions in our education process which keep us blinded.
In K-12 education, World History is really more of a smattering of “what formed Western civilization.” We learn about the Greeks, the Romans, the World Wars, and then a few brief chapters on the Crusades, Buddha and vague paragraph or two on Chinese civilization.
Our education system encourage us to take a foreign language in school, but our overall culture espouses xenophobia. Language is best learned from people, not from books. If we demand that people of other cultures “assimilate” to American culture, we lose out. We have stopped giving them permission to be themselves and turn them into a prop of diversity, rather than a living, breathing person to learn from and exchange ideas with.
“Language is best learned from people, not from books.”
#2 Our Work Culture
We are career and success oriented, because we are addicted to productivity (not to mention dependent on our jobs for health insurance). This motivation makes us some of the most innovative people on the planet since we are always thinking of solutions to problems, but sometimes makes us poor empathizers and incapable of seeing gray in non-black and white situations.
Americans have a reputation to be communication bulldozers. If I say it louder, clearer and more directly, we expect the recipient to understand us. The rest of the world doesn’t operate like this, and speaking is not how language is learned- listening is.
Learning a language is nuanced. And Americans generally suck at nuances.
We are amazing speech givers and “communicators” – as long as it is one sided. We are not known to be the best listeners in the world. In fact, we are kind of horrible at it.
“Learning a language is nuanced. And Americans generally suck at nuances.”
We Americans are very good at thinking that we “fully understand” something if we have read an article about it on the internet or seen a documentary. We generally have a great deal of confidence and a low ability to read between the lines. If someone is taking too long to get to the point, we tune them out and make a mental note to Google it later. These kind of skills retard the ability to learn language.
We have boxes in which other cultures belong in our entertainment media. We have a dominant style of “white English” which is subtlety expected to be spoken and received on the news and in TV/movies. For the most part, other cultures are often portrayed in the media as being “cute” or “sidekicks” as the white Americans continue to be the heroes. I appreciate TV shows and movies which are crossing those barriers and breaking stereotypes and we need more of these in the future to set the stage for a truly multi-cultural media to take flight.
Yes, its true we are a large country pretty much isolated from other language groups. This is the most common excuse for being a mostly monolingual country. The comparison is often drawn with Europe, where passing from country to country only takes a few hours. We use this as an excuse for why we can’t learn other languages. The size of our country is a factor, but not the only factor.
Geography isn’t a good enough excuse. We have people from every country in the world living inside our borders. Yet, we have an overall expectation for people to assimilate or self-isolate into their own ethnic communities.
Our neighbors to the South are our most likely influencers. We like their burritos, piñatas and Despacito, but the rest we leave for them to keep. A greater deal of cultural exchange needs to take place as we rub shoulders.
When we do attempt to learn Spanish, it is mostly to “use” it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “oh yeah, you should learn Spanish so you can use it in your job.” Its not a bad idea, but we need to go beyond “using” a language to get our point across, and learn to listen, to understand what is behind the words.
We see Spanish as a language to digest, to use, disconnected from a culture to embody, respect and appreciate.
I can almost hear some of you saying – but it isn’t my fault, I’m trying! We are simply not nurtured to be world citizens and our culture makes it difficult. Thats true, but I have great hope for our current and future generations. As we modify our educational systems, work culture and media, we can become more versatile, interconnected and as a result, more truly multi-lingual.
In the near future, our country will not be made up of a white majority. We will be majority minority! How do we want our country to look? Do we want to allow the best of people to come out including their linguistic backgrounds? Or do we continue to force ourselves into a monolingual box?
It won’t happen unless we are intentional. Lets do better together, America!