Why Americans Don't Speak Other Languages
Ethnocentricity or a Fact of Life?
There’s an old joke that runs something like the following:
A: “What do you call a person who speaks 3 languages?”
B: “Uh, trilingual?”
A: “Yes. What do you call someone that speaks 2 languages?”
A: “What do you call someone that speaks only 1 language?”
B: “ooh, uh, I’m not sure.”
A: “An American (or 'Englishman' will also work here)."
First off, this is not an entirely true assessment of Americans, as French is actually quite used in some parts of the United States, and of course that powerhouse, Spanish, is quickly coming up throughout the southern and western states, and may eventually be a co-national language to English.
However, there is some truth to the idea that Americans aren’t so proficient at languages outside of their mother tongue. The American lack of foreign language ability stems from a few major sources: geographical isolation, economic strength, a lack of significant foreign travel for Americans, and a lack of need, when travel does happen, due to the former British Empire’s far-reaching characteristics.
Geographically, only Spanish is a major language that truly competes with English in America’s part of the world. However, the neighboring countries that speak Spanish tend not to be so economically viable as to necessitate a need for American business people to learn Spanish. It is very polite and even pragmatic when this is done, but usually it is the Spanish-speaking world that must come to terms with the English language if they wish to do business with Americans. Note that this is not meant to sound ethno-centric (though the practice is, to a point), but is typically seen as a fact of life for people of business, on both ends of the language spectrum.
In fact, it is economics that make up the second point as to why Americans just don’t tend to learn new languages. Coupled with this is the cultural anomaly that Americans don’t tend to travel much outside of their own backyard. This is ironic, given the pecuniary strength that the U.S. and her citizens have held for the last half-century, but in light of this fact, the need for other languages is diminished. Part of the reason that Americans don’t travel is due to political reasons: American hegemony is resented in many parts of the world, thus making travel downright lethal in certain areas of the planet. Further, the United States is a large country, with plenty to see within her own borders. Like the Romans who would travel great distances yet still remain within their empire, Americans have a wide field for travel within their own nation.
The fell stroke that makes this lack of need for other languages is a phenomenon of the former British Empire and her imperialistic nature, along with the somewhat late-bloomer imperialism of the U.S. The simple fact is, the British empire was very, very successful in terms of where it went, which was nearly everywhere on the globe; this was so true that for years the British, especially the English, proudly proclaimed “The sun will never set upon the British Empire.” This has been much to the advantage of “Yanks, Brits, Kiwis, Aussies,” and the entire English-speaking world, so much so that the lack of a second language is predominant throughout the entire Anglo-speaking world.
The simple fact is, whether others like it or not, Americans and the people of other countries that call English their first language will probably never become much good at learning a second language, as a whole, unless something wide-ranging happens which affects most of the people on the planet, such as China becoming the singular world economic or military power. This is quite unlikely however, and so must simply be accepted, like the world being round, gravity being ever-present, and the existence of global warming.