In Defense of Americans (Sort Of)

January 13th, 2010

OK, all of you internationals.  I’ve heard all the jokes about Americans and their famous lack of language skills.  And, they are true, and they are funny.  But, I have to come to the defense of Americans, too, at least partially.

There are reasons why Americans are monolingual, and they aren’t all that we are ego and ethno centric.  Which we are, also.  But I digress. 

The United States, more than most any other country in the world, is a nation of immigrants.  Since our very earliest days, we have been so.  Our national language has long been English, but our immigrants have frequently come to the U.S. speaking only their mother tongue.  But they came here to start a new life, to have opportunity, to join a new and different kind of community.  For those immigrants to thrive in their adopted country, and for that country, the United States, to thrive, there had to be a common language. 

For many, many decades, immigrant families struggled to learn English, to assimilate, and to become part of our famous “Melting Pot” of cultures.  Parents, in an effort to give their children the greatest advantage in their new country, often forbade their children to speak their native language, and forced them to speak only English.  Many first generation American children did not speak the language of their parents as a conscious decision on the part of the parents to make their children fully American, and to give them the greatest possible opportunity.  They knew that many intelligent, educated and hard working immigrants led a frustrating and unfulfilled life because they did not speak the common language of their new country, and they wanted better for their children.

I think this is hard for people from countries with little experience in immigration to understand.  But now, many countries, particularly those in the European Union, are experiencing great waves of immigration from other countries, by people who speak other languages and have very different customs and cultures.  Countries of the E.U. are now experiencing many of the same issues that the United States has grappled with for a couple of hundred years.

Speaking only English became a cultural habit out of necessity in the United States.  In earlier years, there seemed little need to offer substantial language programs in schools.  English was needed, and English was taught.  We needed to focus on our citizenry owning a common language.  That has become the norm that has made us the butt of many jokes, but has also united us as a larger community.

The world has, of course, changed.  The United States is no longer in its youth.  The world has become very much smaller, and more interrelated.  Americans, in my opinion, need to move beyond this older cultural habit, and become greater citizens of the world. 

Speaking a second language, or a second and third, opens windows of understanding into other cultures.  English has become, interestingly, the international language, but that is no excuse for any of us to speak only that. 

Americans are, by and large, ego and ethnocentric.  Your jokes about us are fully justified.  We need to move forward, but please, be a bit more understanding of why we speak only English.  In these times, it isn’t good, but in a previous time, it was essential to the development of our nation.  You, who are from countries experiencing masses of immigration, will see.  I just hope you will do it better than we did.  I hope your immigrants will become fully fluent in the language of your country, while maintaining the language of their native land.

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