[freedomtowernight_edited.jpg] 26th Parallel: Americans and Second Languages

Friday, July 18, 2008

Americans and Second Languages

Andres Oppenheimer reacts to Barack Obama's suggestion that Americans learn a second language, perhaps Spanish, in a column published yesterday. Normally I only post about an Oppenheimer column when I'm ready to blast him. Not today, although there are some things I would like to mention regarding the issue of language.

I agree in spirit with Oppenheimer in that it would be good if more Americans knew a second language. The benefits are obvious. What needs to be brought out, however, is the NEED for a second language. Oppenheimer didn't really address this in full.

My opinion is that most Americans, outside of major urban centers and "border" areas such as Miami, New York or Los Angeles (to mention a few) are rarely and infrequently exposed to a second language. Therefore, is it practical to demand that someone living places such as Des Moines, Kansas City or Tulsa (to mention a few) learn Spanish? For what?

Oppenheimer (and Obama) argue that most Europeans speak a second language. That's fine, but I would argue that it's based on the unique geography of the European continent in which 47 countries (save Iceland), most with their own languages and cultures, are packed into a relatively small area. This necessitates the need for a common language for travel, commerce, etc.

In Europe, that second language happens to be....you guessed it, English. You can thank the British Empire for that. Speaking of which, a survey done in 2005 indicated that 70 percent of participants from the United Kingdom do not master a second language. Obviously, the need for a second language isn't too great in Britain, either.

The issue of Americans not knowing a second language has nothing to do with ethnic superiority, racism, lack of cultural skills, arrogance or intelligence, as some may argue. The argument that learning a second language makes us more competitive in the world market seems faulty to me, since countries such as Japan became major players in the world market by learning English and adapting to western culture, not Americans doing the opposite.

It all comes down to need. Like I said at the beginning, speaking multiple languages is wonderful and definitely opens doors. For this reason alone, more Americans should feel motivated to learn a second language, and plenty already do.

But to DEMAND it? Doesn't sound like a smart idea.


Blogger Steven said...

I agree with Robert that as English speakers we get a "free pass" on truly needing a second language to get around in many places. I think I even read somewhere that there are more people in China learning English than there are Americans (total population)!

Having been blessed with having traveled a great deal, I have made the observation that anywhere you go in Europe or Asian cities, the chances are about 90% that someone who appears educated and under the age of 30 speaks English. I am also surprised that throughout much of Latin America there are very few multilingual people even as professionals.

My advise to young people is this: Learn a second language. There are no shortage of Americans who speak Spanish having learned it at home so you should learn a language that few others speak such as Russian or Chinese where there is significant business opportunity.

2:06 PM, July 18, 2008  
Blogger Marc said...

That's right, most Europeans speak a 2nd language..and it's English. Isn't English the worldwide language used by air traffic control and pilots worldwide? Yes. There is no need for Americans to speak a 2nd language, we already speak English. People that immigrate to the US must adapt to OUR language, we do not have to adapt to theirs. Thanks and 73.

3:48 PM, July 18, 2008  
Blogger Rick said...

Obama nor Andres limited the 2nd language to Spanish and when you look at the Census figures for Des Moines, Kansas City and Tulsa, an average of around 10% of households in those areas speak a language other than English as their primary language at home.

Studies dating back over 10 years document how immigration is changing rural America. Imagine the changes now.

I think Obama's suggestion is spot on and shows his willingness to adapt to the change this country is going through.


9:22 PM, July 18, 2008  
Blogger Robert said...


10% is a small number, and it doesn't mean that none of those folks speak good English, just like many of the people who speak Spanish as their primary language in Miami also speak English. The pressure to assimilate in middle America is undoubtedly much greater than it is in an immigrant-rich place such as Miami, but even in South Florida we're seeing an erosion of Spanish-language skills mainly due to the natural cultural tendency to assimilate.

The article you linked to regarding immigration patterns says that 95% of all U.S. residents live in places that have less than 8% foreign-born residents. Even those U.S. born Hispanics the study mentions speak English in their majority, as I believe the article implicitly indicates.

This all points to the lack of a great NEED for all Americans to learn a second language, as desirable and individually beneficial that would be for anyone. You can say that I agree with the spirit of Obama's suggestion, if not the idea that everyone has to be bilingual.

10:00 AM, July 19, 2008  

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