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Multilingualism

October 7, 2010

September 26 was the European Day of Languages – everyone who knew that, raise their hands….not too many, huh? Well, I did not know it either until yesterday, when I went to an event at the city library, which discussed multilingualism in Ukraine.

Interesting facts about languages:

  • There are over 6,000 languages spoken in the world.
  • The United States does not have an official language. (No, it does not. For all of you who want to argue this point, look it up…nowhere in our Constitution or other laws is English declared to be the official language of the United States).
  • English is the de facto language of the United States, which 82% of the population speaking it as our mother tongue.
  • Spanish is the second most common language spoken in the United States, with 12% of the population speaking it.
  • Mandarin is the most widely-spoken language in the world. 
  • According to Gallup, only about one in four Americans can speak a language other than English well enough to hold a conversation.
  • Younger Americans (aged 18-29) are more likely than older Americans to be bilingual.
  • 43% of Americans with a postgraduate education can speak a second language, compared with 20% of Americans with a high-school education.
  • Those who characterize themselves as liberal in ideology are more likely to be able to speak a second language than those who consider themselves moderate or conservative.
  • About one in five Americans — 19% — believe that it is essential to speak a second language in general.
  • 50% of the population believe that knowledge of a foreign language is a valuable skill but is not essential.
  • (Sadly), nearly one-third — 30% — feel that it is not too important or not important at all to speak a second language.

The Gallup report can be found at http://www.gallup.com/poll/1825/about-one-four-americans-can-hold-conversation-second-language.aspx

According to an EU report (from 2006, but all I could find on short notice):

  • The European Union recognises 20 official languages, and about 60 other indigenous and non-indigenous languages are spoken over the geographical area.
  • Luxembourg has three officially recognized languages (French, German, and Luxembourgish).
  • 56% of EU citizens are able to hold a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue.
  • 28% of EU citizens can speak two languages other than their native language.
  • About 10% of EU citizens can speak three languages other than their native language.

The EU survey can be found at http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_243_en.pdf

While I support multilingualism, readers of this blog know that it has caused me no fair share of headaches since I have been here. However, ultimately, I believe it is to everyone’s benefit to be multilingual, and think that America should do a better job of ensuring that our children learn languages other than English from an early age (as they do in Europe).

How many languages can you speak?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jennifer Janis permalink
    October 7, 2010 5:52 am

    It has always amazed me when people have used the whole “if you can’t speak our language get out of our country” argument for immigration or even having to pick a language on phone voice menus- when we don’t have an official language-never have. It just shows the general lack of knowledge (some may say ignorance) the general public has about our own government and policies in America. Very sad.

    And I completely agree with you on the fact that we should do more to give kids the chance to learn and become fluent in foreign languages. The main problem is that as English is the accepted language of world business, there is less need for english speakers to speak foreign languages. While I’m glad for that as an EFL instructor, it makes me sad that people can get away without speaking in a country’s native tongue. Now it’s simply a matter of courtesy to speak the language of the country you are in- instead of an absolute need.

  2. Gwenn permalink
    October 9, 2010 8:02 am

    Let me “hop on the bandwagon” since, with me, you’re “preaching to the choir.” Yes, it’s unfortunate the condition in America has been exacerbated by the language of business being English. I pile onto that attitude, internationally, the language of aviation is also English (it is required of all pilots they speak English in order to do their jobs; English IS THE LANGUAGE OF AVIATION). So, it then also bleeds into travel, making English permeate the globe. We, as native English speakers, become the spoiled children of the world, unchallenged when it comes to interacting or communicating with the rest of the world. There truly is a sense of expecting the “world” to come to us – and accommodate us – since they did by learning our language! You didn’t know you handed me a soap box (…and yes, I DO speak another language fluently with comprehension and partial use of several others…)!

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