There’s an old joke involving two guys. It starts out with one asking the other, ¨What do you call a person who speaks three languages?¨ The other guy responds with ¨trilingual.¨ Two languages? Bilingual. One language? American. Yeah, it’s harsh, but when you think about it, it’s hard to deny the truth.
Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with the rest of the world. We love all the cheap labor they provide us. They love our money. We love being tourists in their countries. They love our money. At the same time, there are many things they don’t like about us. One of the first of these that comes to mind is American’s lack of language knowledge. We know one language: English. This is, of course, a huge stereotype, but it exists because, in most cases, it’s true.
Compared to the rest of the world, the United States has a surprisingly low percentage of people who speak more than one language. This is primarily due to the fact that we live in a nation where learning a new language is not required for daily living for most people. In the U.S. there is, for the most part, only one major language spoken. Even Canada can’t make that claim. In fact, judging by the average person in Orange City, Iowa, one might come to the conclusion that for the average American citizen, speaking a foreign language is only necessary if you are either traveling to another country or trying to pass a required general education class.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with never bothering to learn another language if you’re only planning to come into contact with other people who speak English. Nothing at all. However, it becomes a problem when people go to other countries and expect the people there to speak English with them. This would be the equivalent of a German tourist coming into a New York shop and expecting the English-speaking clerk to speak German with him.
This seems to be one of the main complaints I get from foreigners while travelling abroad. Americans tend to not even try to learn a country’s language before travelling there. Obviously, becoming fluent in a language is never expected for a week-long trip, but it’s always nice to be able to say things like “hello” or “thank you.” Even that is better than nothing.
If nothing else, learning a language shows that you’re willing to learn more about the people and their way of life. Try breaking the stereotype of the ignorant American tourist who just comes in, takes a few photos, then leaves. America doesn’t need that kind of image.