The other day, I went to a French meet-up group that consisted of native French speakers, native English speakers who spoke fluent French, and students of the language like myself. It was so fun and exhilarating. It’s very empowering for me to be able to express myself in a foreign language- even if I have to find another way of saying something that I don’t know the word for- and to be able to understand most of what someone else is saying. It’s also just a really fun practice that makes me feel more comfortable with speaking and listening. However, after three hours, my brain was starting to hurt. I found comfort in the fact that, not only could I leave at any time and return to speaking/thinking in English, but I could even speak in English with any of the group members if I really needed to. Speaking in French was more of a self-imposed restraint than a necessity, because even the native French speakers of the group spoke English.
I realized how lucky that makes me.
As is commonly known, English is widely spoken all over the world. Thanks to our good friend imperialism- in particular British colonization of a good chunk of the world as well as our own country’s political and cultural imperialism, you’d be hard-pressed to travel to a country that has no English speakers. (One time I included the aforementioned statement in a French composition, and my professor was like, “I completely disagree with your opinion.” And I was like, “Gurl, that’s not an opinion.”) It’s for this reason that many English-speaking Americans choose not to learn a second language- and even those who want to have a hard time finding a way to do so. The best time to learn a new language is when one is a child- basically at the same time that one is learning English- because the language is acquired more subconsciously. Thus, if I had learned French when I was a child, I would be able to speak it as effortlessly as English; instead, I have to think about how to say something in French before I say it out loud. Anyhow, less than one-third of U.S. elementary schools offer foreign language courses . In California, at least in my school district, foreign language classes weren’t even offered until high school; at that point, one was required to take two years of a foreign language. That’s it. At my school, the smart kids and the not-so-smart kids were all lumped in the same language classes, making it so that the classes moved really slowly and the teacher had to focus more on disciplining the students than actually teaching.
In Europe, 90% of children begin learning English in elementary school, and the European Union set a goal in 2002 that students should learn two foreign languages in addition to their native tongue.
The European Union thus teaches children foreign languages at the appropriate age to do so, continues that education throughout their whole academic career, and understands the importance of multilingualism. In the United States, somehow we think that two years of subpar language classes 10 years too late for the student is sufficient. How many people have you talked to who said, “Oh, I took two years of Spanish in high school, but I forgot it all?”
What does it matter though? The rest of the world speaks English.
While factually true, this statement embodies the cultural superiority and ignorance that befalls on too many Americans. We think that we are the only culture and language that matters, and everyone else should try to be more like us. When non-English speaking immigrants and refugees come to America, we bitch, “Why can’t they just learn English?” yet we travel to other countries without making an ounce of an effort to learn the language spoken there. There was an article in the Long Beach Post today discussing the need to further language access in Long Beach, in particular to the city’s large Spanish-, Khmer-, and Tagalog-speaking communities. Every single comment on the article was basically someone saying, “Why are we enabling these people, they’re so ignorant, they just need to learn English.”
Um, you try fleeing your home country because it is run by a dictator who is committing genocide against his own citizens. You thus didn’t have access to an English education, and you are now past the age in which it is easiest to learn a foreign language. Then you arrive in a strange land in which everyone around you questions why you’re not fluent in English. And then try teaching English to your kids.
You try fleeing your home country because you are impoverished and your country offers no economic opportunities and/or there are drug wars or terrorism . You were also deprived of an English education, and now you are past the age at which it is easiest to learn a foreign language. There’s this country called America whose citizens boast that it is the best and richest in the whole world; you also know that the country was founded by immigrants who came from all over the world. So you go, and everyone around you questions why you’re not fluent in English. And then try teaching English to your kids.
We ourselves know how hard it is to learn a foreign language (especially all of you who “Took two years of Spanish in high school but forgot it all!”), yet we’re so insensitive and hard on those who cannot speak English. We’re totally hypocritical.
When I lived in France, I spoke some French, and I was taking a French class. However, I was not fluent and thus very thankful that a lot of signs on the street and government and healthcare documents were also printed in English. Yes, I wanted to learn French and work towards fluency, but if I had had to go to the hospital or something, I would be really scared taking chances with my health in a language that I don’t yet speak fluently. And I hadn’t even come to France basically involuntarily as a refugee or an immigrant fleeing poverty in my home country- I was there as a student/tourist!
Thus, it is not ignorant for someone living in the U.S. to not speak English- we are the ignorant hypocrites who don’t understand why they don’t. We think that it would be best if everyone else just assimilated to be more like ourselves. Finally, our government would rather spend money on bombing other countries instead of funding foreign language education for children who could grow up to be diplomats.