Why We Should All Want to Speak Five Languages (via NPR)

According to linguist, Dennis Baron, interviewed by Barbara King for NPR:

“Census figures from the 2009 American Community Survey…show about 20 percent of residents over age five speak a language other than English at home. Most of them also speak at least some English, and those who don’t are learning it.” Perhaps two percent of U.S. speakers of languages other than English don’t speak English itself, so we can estimate that about 18 percent of Americans are bilingual.

via Jared Diamond, A New Guinea Campfire, And Why We Should Want To Speak Five Languages : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR.

While not an insignificant number, it’s also an extremely low number when we consider that the 21st century will require generations of children and adults who are fluent in languages and can, therefore, comfortably navigate different cultures. English continues to dominate the international sphere, however, as more countries enter into trading partnerships with one another, a key component of success will be both parties’ ability to converse in each other’s native language and respect key cultural norms. For instance, an American working in China today would be considered arrogant to presume that s/he does not need to know Mandarin but can reasonably expect that every Chinese person speak fluent English. The social and economic consequences to such a person could range from mild to severe and include cultural isolation to loss of business.

Baron tells King:

“Over time…today’s bilinguals will likely slip into monolingual English use, or their children will.” Bilingualism just isn’t welcomed here [in the United States] with open arms.

As Baron put it, there’s “significant support for English-only. Most of this is disguised or patent resentment toward immigrants, and it occurs both in areas with significant immigration (big cities, the Southwest, Florida) and those with few non-anglophones (Iowa, West Virginia).”

When a Spanish-version recording of the national anthem was released in 2005, Baron recalled, “there was much public opposition…At the time, there were four Spanish translations of the national anthem on the U.S. State Department Spanish-language website. They disappeared overnight.”

via Jared Diamond, A New Guinea Campfire, And Why We Should Want To Speak Five Languages : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR.

It’s not enough for schools to bear the full burden of teaching several languages; parents must take on their fair share as well and encourage language acquisition through international travel, sampling foods from various cultures, and (gasp) even learn a different language themselves! So, how many languages do you speak? When was the last time you traveled to a different country where English was not the norm?


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