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Thursday, June 10, 2010

English only? By circumstance, not by design.

Why is English the unofficial language of the US? Is that a problem? No it’s not. Although it is often seen as a sign of being unsophisticated or ignorant that most American’s can only speak English. Speaking more than one language doesn’t make you smarter. It makes you more agile – especially in an environment where multiple languages are used. In the US, the various spheres of language all converged on English.

As I see it there are a few different places languages are spoken.

  • Natural language – the language spoken by your parents and in the home.
  • Communal language – the language spoken in your community
  • Government language – the language used to interact with everyone in the country and make decisions as a whole
  • Media language – the primary language used to broadcast or disseminate information (TV, newspapers, etc)
  • Commercial language – the language required to perform business transactions

Each language area covers a different (and larger) set of people so that you can interact with all of the people in those areas successfully.

In many countries these various sphere’s have their own distinct language. Consider this scenario - maybe you live in a small village in Italy so you speak a certain Italian dialect in the house and to the local community. But being in such a diverse country the various dialects don’t work well so the media and government are in a more standardized Italian. Being in business that does trade around the world all your commercial transactions are done in English which is the de facto standard. Even if you only do business locally you likely know enough “business English” to deal with tourists (counting to 10, yes/no, etc).

This is the diversity that forces people to know multiple languages. In the United States all of these various areas happen to use English. We don’t even have significant dialects from one coast to another. I imagine that is mostly due to the swiftness that the culture engulfed the continent (200 years) as opposed to European countries which have thousands of years of distinct history within isolated pockets. It also has to do with the age in which we came about, mass media came onto the scene in the early 1900s which helped cement the language nationwide and keep it from fragmenting.

It just really irks me when I come across someone who disdains you for only being fluent in one language because where they come from its really a necessity. They didn’t learn English because it was interesting. They learned English because they had to in order to function in the world. Think about that the next time someone says “Well in Germany, we learn English in grade school” Of course you do! But its not my fault that I don’t have to learn your language.

So, for living in the US:
Speaking only English in the US isn’t unsophisticated. Its just practical.
Speaking multiple languages in the US isn’t sophisticated. Its superfluous.

(I actually have studied a foreign language but since I don’t ever use it, I am back to being a mono-linguist.)

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