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Why Americans Don't Speak Other Languages

Updated on January 5, 2008

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?”

B: “Bilingual.”

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.


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    • Sean Fullmer profile image

      Sean Fullmer 3 years ago from California

      Ivan, what's your point, that English is not phonetic? Something else, maybe?

    • profile image

      Ivan 3 years ago

      You cant say plain yes or no. Pros: simple spelnilg like it was said, once you got a hang on the pronunciation, you can spell every word by hearing it (this is why there are no spelnilg contests in german schools) shares roots with english this is a big one, it does not sound as alien as spanish does. Compound Nouns even you may see it as a disadvantage first but its very handy as you can build up your vocab on some simple words, complex words are mostly formed as compounds cons: Grammar german grammar is confusing for native english speakers as word order can change to almost anything. Genders of words unlike spanish, german has even 3 genders (der, die, das) (male, female, neuter) vocab german vocabulary is huge(!) Unknown sounds native english speakers sometimes really have problems with c4 d6 dc and the ch sound. lack to practice spanish community in US is way larger then german

    • profile image

      janne 5 years ago

      Well I came across an American girl..yes her ancestors were all settlers during the 1800's america and she speaks 7 languages fluently (but mainly because she serves a language translator lol). I'm only fluent in English, but I do understand an Indian langauge fluently and can speak intermediately and also can speak Spanish well, but have a little difficulty understanding it at times.

    • profile image

      Me 5 years ago

      Nicolas,you have to be kidding me. I live in American and learned Spanish in grade school and high school. I never used it and "lost it". There are plenty of legal and illegal immigrants from Spanish speaking countries that don't know a lick of English and they don't want to. What do you call that?

    • profile image

      Nicolas 6 years ago

      Well, in my country (Colombia) There are MANY Americans here on buisness (for minerals, or fruits or anything really). Yet, they don't know something past "Hola" or "Por favor" in spanish. Yet here people tend to speak some two or three languages, not necessarily for buissneses-

    • profile image

      regg 6 years ago

      I want to learn the brazilian variety of portuguese but me being from & still living in New Orleans, USA makes it hard no one here speaks it & I can't find anyone on the internet

    • profile image

      Alara 6 years ago

      Sergio, what if said English speaker didn't know that you spoke other languages? And what if the English speaker spoke other languages but not the one that is your mothertongue? Then, it would hardly be a case of arrogance rather an unfortunate situation. You both would have to make do with the languages you DO speak, whether or not that be English.

      On a completely unrelated note, I love languages~ I am aspiring to become a translator and already speak Spanish and American Sign Language fluently. I am pretty good with my German (fear it!) and my French...well, let's just say I accidentally either cuss people or say the strangest things.

      If you live in a city in good ol' USA, New York City nonetheless, then you would find easier means of speaking in various languages. I live in Chicago. Not to mention the internet can help greatly with keeping your language (although the speaking part - not so much).

      ...Yup. Good article, many good points.

    • profile image

      Sergio 7 years ago

      I never speak English outside the English speaking world.

      Why should I?

      If an English native speaker speaks in English to me I regard that as an enormous lack of respect. My self-esteem does not allow such arrogance.

    • profile image

      sarah 7 years ago

      i am just 15, British, and speak over 13 languages, most with fluency. Guess I'm the exception to the norm? :D

    • Sean Fullmer profile image

      Sean Fullmer 8 years ago from California

      Indian, you're right on most counts, though I think that Canadians would take exception to calling their particular dialect "a mixture of American and British English." They speak the dialect of Canadian, period. While it's true that Americans might contribute to some of Canada's linguistic peculiarities, the reverse could also be said. Canadian English and American English arose at the same time, not separately in respective Petri dishes.

      As for the way that you feel Indian English is viewed by other Anglophiles and Anglophones, that's not a part of my article, but might make a great hub for you (or anyone else) to write. Good luck. (If it makes you feel better, Indian English may one day become the largest English dialect in the world, if not already.)

    • profile image

      indian 8 years ago

      American English is spoken in the USA, Canada and many Pacific Rim countries where America has exerted an influence.

      British English is spoken throughout the British Commonwealth of 54 countries, some of the most notable being the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, with Canada being the exception. Although part of the Commonwealth, Canadians tend to speak a mixture of American and British English due to that country's proximity to the USA (although they spell the British way).

      If foreigners think Indians cant speak good english then why do they outsource thousands of call center projects to India ?

    • profile image

      Andrew Playford 8 years ago

      I am South African and we are just as bad. Lucky for all of us English speakers learning a second language is usually a luxury not a necessity. However, we will soon need to learn Chinese!

    • Sean Fullmer profile image

      Sean Fullmer 8 years ago from California

      2003m3, I'd say you're absolutely correct, not to mention rather erudite!

      You raise a point that is important not only for Americans, but for any group or nation that is ascending towards greater power (there are many hopefuls, such as the Chinese): though countries may take the position of top power, if their hubris contaminates their culture, they will not be at the top for long.

    • profile image

      2003m3 8 years ago

      The ability to speak foreign languages well is a tremendous asset in today global economy. I speak 4 fluently and almost equally well (English, German, Russian, Czech), 4 others so-so (Spanish, Italian, French, Polish), and a few basics in Thai, Bahasa Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. This is because, although I am American, I was born in Europe and my higher education is part from Europe and part from the States. What also helps is that I did my thesis work in Latin America and after graduation I have worked in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Dubai, Nigeria, Angola, Russia, Germany, Austria, Romania and the Czech Republic. Americans are generally shutting themselves out of a huge amount of interesting career opportunities precisely because most have no interest in learning foreign languages. This comes from the misguided and outdated attitude that America is the center of the world. It may have been so in 1950 or 1960, but now now.

    • Sean Fullmer profile image

      Sean Fullmer 9 years ago from California

      Retain, you're right on many counts. However, learning an auxillary language for the world is also important.

      As for Americans needing to grow up, you're spot on. However, as a student of history, to be absolutely fair, it's not Americans per se who are egocentric, but whatever human group is in power. Think about it: the English were that way when they were in power. The Japanese were that way (and still are despised by the Chinese) when they were in power. The ancient Greeks, the Egyptians, and every "top dog" culture has been emulated as well as despised. It's not a solely American phenomenon. It's a human trait.

      Still, this isn't to say that ethnocentricity is allowable.

      Best of luck with your language studies.

    • profile image

      Retain 9 years ago

      Growing up in Asia currently, reside in Brazil. I learn foreign languages on'my

      own . Regarding America there limited in cultural understanding. They still

      believe there the progressive society of equality. As Asian businessperson

      if not proficient in my field of industry. The Yankee would disguard with me

      I notice the moment American go anywhere. They want the world to yield

      to Americanism only there thought and theory. Which bias because you have

      modern skyline in city which not Ameica it's not Chicago. What I'm saying,

      Americans are visiual and naïve your not are model. The superior attitude

      needs to be rekindle, you no nothing about. Asian heritage only Americans

      facade so Go to Hell America. We no longer need you I admire Japan all

      the websites for business in native Japanese. America is spoiled I notice

      the excecutive management only proficient. English American dialect that is.

      Of European heritage not concern just consider himself. Color abstraction what

      ever when in Europe heritage is paramount. But anyhow America grow up and

      learn from the world.

    • boberto profile image

      boberto 9 years ago

      I'm English and studied spanish and german at university as well as French at high school. I find it really interesting to learn foreign languages but unfortuntely we think because most of the world speak English we don't have to put in the effort to speak their language.

      I find the best way of learning a language is by spending some time in that country to absorb the culture. It also means you have no choice in speaking the language and because of this you pick it up quicker.

    • Sean Fullmer profile image

      Sean Fullmer 10 years ago from California

      Mexico is where I learned my English, Barrett. Give it a shot, and let me know what you think. But in all seriousness, an ESL school or an English-speaking nation would be the two best bets, though not in that order.

    • profile image

      Barrett 10 years ago

      Do you know a good place where I could learn English?

    • Sean Fullmer profile image

      Sean Fullmer 10 years ago from California

      RA, you've hit the nail on the head regarding the singular biggest problem with learning a new language. However, nowadays there are many different language groups that meet regularly to practice their newfound language together. Also, chatrooms in a given language are a nice resource. I hope you learn a language, but learn one that you're deeply interested in -that's the secret to success, methinks.

    • Research Analyst profile image

      Research Analyst 10 years ago

      I have been saying to myself that I will learn another language, but I guess it has been the opportunity to practice the language once I learned it, that would be an issue.


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