Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Unimportance of Being Bilingual

You've probably heard this tired and tiresome joke: "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? American." It seems to be a popular joke among Americans who speak more than one language, and the joke and its telling reek of moral superiority and superciliousness. Those who tell that joke see knowing more than one language as inherently admirable or denoting a higher level of civilization and sophistication.

Do these smug multilinguals, these language geeks, ascribe the same superiority to those who know two or three computer programming languages instead of just one? Or multiple computer operating systems instead of just one? Of course not. They see those as tools and understand that some people may need to be familiar with many of them, while others may only need to know one - or none.

Many language geeks don't seem to understand that what is to them a source of intellectual pleasure and satisfaction, languages and learning and using them, is to most other people a tool. Some people need familiarity with more than one of those tools. Many do not. In America, most do not.

Considering it only from the point of view of pragmatism, who needs to know languages other than their own? People who live near the border of another country or, which is much the same thing, people who live in small countries. People who deal regularly, socially or professionally, with native speakers of another language, orally or in writing. People who travel frequently to other countries. English is the native language of 82% of Americans, and for the majority of those Americans, none of those special situations applies.

Certainly, for many of those native English speakers, it would be convenient to be able to speak a second language reasonably well. But for most people who weren't exposed to other languages before puberty, learning a second language is no trivial matter. For some, it's virtually impossible. They're not lazy. They're not morally inferior. They simply can't do it. For others, it's doable, but the effort and time required are enormous and far out of proportion to the benefits gained.

Nor is the task pleasurable for many people. For them, learning a second language is unrelenting drudgery and an almost pointless grind. (By the way, this points up the absurdity of requiring passing grades in a second language for college graduation.) I've studied a few languages in my life (Hebrew, Afrikaans, Latin, Russian, German, Spanish, and French) and reached varying levels of reading or speaking proficiency in them. I've long forgotten most of what I learned, but I remember that, while I enjoyed the proficiency I achieved, the process of acquiring it was never enjoyable. If foreign-language fluency were available in pill form, I'd happily swallow those pills, but I have no intention of studying a foreign language again. For me, foreign-language study was always dreary and dreaded.

My wife is the opposite. She's quadrilingual (English, German, Spanish, French), works as a language tutor and translator, and reads foreign grammar books for relaxation. She has a network of friends who are of the same bent. Her abilities amaze me and her choice of reading bewilders me. She feels the same about my technical orientation. My mathematical and scientific knowledge and my computer abilities are modest by my standards but seem magical to her. It's all a matter of how one's brain tends to bend.

I've heard the argument that you should learn foreign languages in order to be able to read the great literature of other countries in the original versions. That's nonsense. How many people can become fluent enough, at a high enough level, in even one foreign language to be able to read the greatest works of literature in that language? Consider, too, how languages change over time, so you'd have to achieve a very impressive level of fluency to be able to read the great works written in a foreign language in different eras. And that's just one foreign language. For all but the tiny minority of people who have extraordinary language-learning abilities and extraordinary amounts of time to spend at it, it makes far more sense to read great works of literature in the best available English translations.

Let's briefly address a peripheral issue. Language geeks who sneer at monolingual Americans also like to compare them unfavorably to citizens of other countries - usually (Continental) Europeans - who are said to generally speak one or more languages in addition to their native one. That's often true, for the pragmatic reasons I mentioned above, but it's also often true that they don't speak those other languages well. When Americans do study other languages seriously, they tend to work extremely hard at the grammar and spelling - and also at the pronunciation. Europeans tend to be cavalier about English, and especially about pronunciation. This can even apply to immigrants who've lived in the U.S. for decades.

If you enjoy learning other languages, then good for you. Knock yourself out. Learn as many of them as you want to and have time for. Just remember that a second language is a tool, and the monolingual majority around you has no need of it or interest in it.


Travis Erwin said...

You raise some great points. I am uno-lingual myself, but I did have six years of Latin between high school and college and that helps me identify the root word in many languages including English. I can usually get the gist while reading any of the romance languages.

TGirsch said...

Do these smug multilinguals, these language geeks, ascribe the same superiority to those who know two or three computer programming languages instead of just one? Or multiple computer operating systems instead of just one? Of course not.

Being a computer geek myself, I can tell you that they absolutely do.

Many do not. In America, most do not.

That's part of the knock, actually. It's not entirely fair, but it plays in to the (often true) stereotype that Americans don't really care very much about stuff that isn't American. They say we're provincial -- largely true -- and point to our overwhelmingly unilingual culture (although that's changing) as evidence, even though that's a non sequitur.

TGirsch said...

I would add, too, that not taking foreign language study seriously in middle and high school remains one of my life's biggest regrets. I blew off four and a half years of German, and have almost nothing to show for it. (I can however, order a beer, and ask for directions to the bathroom, so I've got the most important stuff covered.)

I'm of the firm belief that school children ought to learn a second language of some sort. In the current age of globalization, knowing a second language can be remarkable valuable. As someone who's struggling to learn Spanish as an adult, I can tell you that it's something I wish I'd done -- and taken seriously -- a lot younger.

That's not to say that I look down my nose at people who are unilingual -- I'd be looking down my nose at myself, for starters -- just that I think knowing a second language, especially a practically useful one (e.g., Spanish, French, or Portuguese in the Americas), can be incredibly handy.

Who I will look down my nose at are people who insist that America is the Greatest Country in the History of the World, but who've never been anywhere else. But that's another topic for another day.

David said...


Six years of Latin is a huge amount, by modern standards. I don't remember how much I had. Two or three years, I think. It was long ago, and yet I still find conjugations or declensions popping into my head when I see or hear a word in a Romance language.

David said...


Interesting. I'm a computer geek, and I've always had (natural) language types regard my knowledge of programming languages as either exotic and alien or sneer worthy.

Most do not. I contend that that's true. It's not a question of provincialism but utility. Most Americans don't need to know a language other than English. I suspect that most Russians don't need to know a language other than Russian, and most Chinese don't need to know a language other than Mandarin or Cantonese -- for the same reason, in both cases, as Americans with English. Compare that to the Dutch, who are famously competent at multiple languages, with good reason.

You assert that knowing a second language is important because of globalization. It's a common assertion. I contend that globalization has not affected the majority of Americans in a linguistic sense. More: globalization is continuing the process of making English the world language. If history causes English to be superseded, it won't be by Spanish but by Mandarin or possibly Hindi.

For some people, knowing a second language is very convenient. I mentioned that in my post. I'm not expressing opposition to the very idea of learning a second language, but rather to the idea that it's somehow morally superior to do so, whether or not one needs the second language as a tool or enjoys studying other languages.

It's easy for me not to think that America is the greatest and number one in everything and invented everything, because I'm a furriner. After 51 years in the U.S., I'm still shaking my head at the strange ideas these people have about the rest of the world.

TGirsch said...

I fail to see how you're getting from "important" and "useful" to "morally superior." I certainly haven't made that argument.

As to why globalization makes it more important/useful, there are any number of jobs in which knowing more than one language makes you more valuable (in terms of both compensation and ability to get a job in the first place), irrespective of what those languages are. Can you get by without it? In most cases, absolutely. But that doesn't diminish the fact that it very often is both useful and advantageous to know more than one.

TGirsch said...

As to the language geek thing, I misread the proposition. I was saying that computer geeks do tend to view those who know multiple operating systems/programming languages as being "better" than those who know just one. I have no idea how spoken/written language elitsts view them, however.

David said...

TGirsch, no, I didn't think that you were making that argument. The implication of moral superiority is the strong impression I always get from language geeks when they sneer at monolinguals.

I'll admit that I also tend to see computer geeks who know multiple programming languages/OSs as superior to those who know just one, but to be logical and consistent, I have to concede that for people whose IT careers depend only one language/OS, there's no reason to learn a second one. You could actually get by just fine with only one in the old days; people spent entire careers doing COBOL on IBM mainframes. (Thank God I wasn't one of them!)

As to globalization and the resulting value of knowing a second language, I agree. I made the point in the post that a second language may be a valuable or necessary tool for some people. I was arguing against the position that it's (morally) necessary for everyone else. Globalization hasn't had a linguistic effect on most Americans. If/when it does, will that come in form of Spanish, or of Mandarin or Hindi?

TGirsch said...

If/when it does, will that come in form of Spanish, or of Mandarin or Hindi?

Yes. :)

Alex Moore said...

thought-provoking post, David. You made me wonder a couple of things:

...learn foreign languages in order to be able to read the great literature of other countries in the original versions...

I agree, not only is it nonsense, but how many people do you know who can read the "classic greats" in their native language? Not to sound cynical or anything.

Secondly, it occurs to me that when continental europeans speak one another's languages and are aware of one another's newsy happenings it's much like a Coloradan speaking the same language as a Washtonian or Idahon or Californian, or knowing what's going on in the politics of said states. Just an observation :)

Smug snootiness stinks, yes?

David said...

Hi, Alex.

Ha, I remember struggling through great works of literature in German in college. Nightmarish. Later, I read some of them in translation and enjoyed them.

Well, I wouldn't say that Spanish and Polish, for example, are as closely related to each other as are different flavors of American English! But on the other hand, young Europeans who don't speak each other's languages often communicate in English. There's a lesson there for those who sneer at the monolingualness of Anglos.