The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.
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(Photo: Ed Samuel/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Ed Samuel/Shutterstock)

"I speak high-school English," a Berlin hairdresser warned as I entrusted her with my son's head of unkempt hair. Snipping away, she serenaded us with "oh," "nice," and "ha," which rolled off her tongue in heavy rotation. Inspired by her own linguistic accomplishment, at the register she asked me when I was going to teach my children some German, at last. Clearly, it was their turn to be polyglot.

I hear this question frequently. After all, teaching German is what I do for a living. So why would I begrudge some wanderlust, schadenfreude, and zeitgeist to my very own flesh and blood? Am I knowingly raising a brood of monolingual Americans, stifled by their language deficit, according to the recent Guardianroundtable? Because, in the eyes of global citizens the world over, and, especially, in the eyes of many Europeans, it is one of the worst things to be. For this reason, they rush to our rescue.

Or do they? American monolingualism, we need to realize, is not only of our own making. Often enough, our overseas hosts perpetuate it, although not to commit acts of vengeful post-NSA-scandal subterfuge. There are other reasons, which frequently have to do more with them than with us. Unless we train ourselves to interpret such motivations and become more proactive about changing the terms of our exchanges, we will remain at a unique disadvantage in this largely bilingual world.

The Goethe Institute, the world's largest resource of experienced German teachers, costs the Federal government about 233 million Euros a year.

Don't get me wrong: The bulk of American monolingualism is still homegrown. Only about 18 percent of us speak another language. As few as 11 states and the District of Columbia require (PDF) foreign language credit for high school graduation. Fewer and fewer middle schools now offer language instruction in fewer languages. In homes, the use of Spanish, the most widely spoken U.S. language after English, is predicted to decrease by 2020, as the number of U.S.-born Latinos climbs. It doesn't help that conservative politicians associate bi- or multilingualism with a deficit of patriotism. Some will recall Ann Coulter's notorious anti-soccer column, flush with references to French and Arabic, both used for mockery's sake. The developer of Monolingual, a newly popular app that rids your Mac's memory of unwanted tongues, sums it all up in a straightforward pitch: "I don't know about you, but I use my computer in only one (human) language—English."

But our monolingualism is also encouraged—or, at least, not discouraged—abroad, as I observed in Germany's capital this summer. Teeming with nearly 15,000 U.S. expats, Berlin puts total immersion—the main selling point for language study programs such as that which I am now directing—to one of its toughest tests. And not necessarily because Americans chatter away in English: Germans do too, whether they can pull it off or not. Why they do that is the million-dollar question.

So, let's dwell on urban Germany, where the monolingual American is a modern folklore staple, along with the hipster, the grumpy grandma, or the subway-car musician. Most want him (or her) gone, and one would think that a bit of German would go a long way in making this vexing species disappear. But asking natives to help—merely by using their mother tongue—can feel as uncertain as sending a message in a bottle.

At first glance, the proposition seems preposterous. Germany's government invests millions in making the country's language hip again, from Peru to Myanmar. The Foreign Office steers a gamut of cultural diplomacy initiatives, from academic exchange programs to TV stations. The Goethe Institute, the world's largest resource of experienced German teachers, costs the Federal government about 233 million Euros a year (PDF). But on the streets the sentiment is different.

The sad truth is that if you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city—Berlin is not the only example—you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot. Unless, that is, some form of contract is in place—with a host family, for instance. Otherwise, the vaunted total immersion becomes a struggle. But before we rush to move our language study programs to the German outback, we should try to decode the bigger picture and help other language learners do the same. Understanding why people won't speak their language with us is, too, part of cross-cultural competence.

Take my group of students this summer. Several of them are not American-born or -raised: Argentina, Singapore, and Canada come up in the introductions. Some are bilingual—Spanish and Mandarin recur as second native tongues—as, incidentally, are my own kids, who get by with acceptable Russian. The rest are proof that demand (PDF) for foreign languages is growing steadily (PDF)—and at pains to avoid the clichés.

But their attempts to chat up a stranger on the street—a waiter in a bar, or a clerk at a railway ticketing office—quickly prove me wrong. English haunts them in up to 75 percent of interactions, they estimate. Growling r's and botched umlauts—no matter how residual—turn out to be dead giveaways in a country where speaking without an accent is as important, if not more important, than speaking fluently—even for Germans. Instead of helping one lose those pesky sounds (let alone discounting the accent), native speakers often keep one from using German altogether.

Not a big deal, some will say. The switch into English can come off as a cosmopolitan gesture of hospitality, an eager wish to practice, or ordinary big-city impatience. And sometimes it is. After all, English is a European lingua franca "even in countries where Brits and Americans rarely tread," a recent analysis affirms. But things are not so simple.

As the current English Proficiency Index shows, many Germans speak English that is not much better than my students' German. While not everyone falls into the limited range of "oh," "nice," and "ha," Germans do lag behind Scandinavians, Austrians, Poles, and Malaysians, earning 14th place in the world's hierarchy of non-native English speakers. Even among the globetrotting German business professionals, only 2.1 percent trust that their English is perfect. For those with questionable English skills, the switch can be a preemptive strike that gives them an illusory edge over their Anglophone counterparts. As a student observes, "Germans sometimes use English to showcase their capability and contrast it with your incapability," even when such a power relation is has little to do with reality. Purported bilingualism quickly becomes conversational capital. Just as financial capital, it thrives on uneven, asymmetrical distribution.

American monolingualism, we need to realize, is not only of our own making. Often enough, our overseas hosts perpetuate it, although not to commit acts of vengeful post-NSA-scandal subterfuge.

In more egregious cases, the same student continues, English is "clearly [intended as] an insult." The language becomes a mouthpiece for funneling anger in the city already famous for its residents' rough-and-ready attitude, the Berliner Schnauze. When Berliners switch into English, it is often to yell: "YOU MUST SHOW ME YOUR SIGNATURE," and, upon seeing a U.S. driver's license, "I KNOW NOT WHAT IT IS!" The raised pitch is not surprising: a foreign language, linguists acknowledge, does not carry the mother tongue's emotional charge. But startling it is.

Finally, an even more important reason for the switch into English may well be political. In Germany's case, it cloaks the country's own profound ambivalence about certain kinds of bilingualism—especially the accented kind—by shifting attention to the shortcomings of others. The latest example is at our fingertips.

On July 3, the Bundestag passed a law legalizing dual citizenship for children born in Germany to non-European Union citizens, especially Turks. Over the past 13.5 years, young people in this group had to give up one of their two passports by age 21. But the law, celebrated by many as Germany's show of its true emigration-country colors, does not apply to those born before 1990, that is, to the parent or grandparent generations. To the chagrin of the Turkish-German community, the guest workers who had given Germany their best years but may not have landed the best accents are not trusted with split allegiances. Treading more lightly around accents, it seems, would benefit not only the supposedly monolingual American.

And so, as weeks go by, the switch into English increasingly sounds like an overt sentence to monolingualism. After all, it does nothing to spirit away the character whom Germans seem to dislike so wholeheartedly. Conversely, it nurtures this type, by instilling what my students describe as a lasting sense of failure and frustration, difficult to shake off even for the grittiest. These gain few friends for German.

But grappling with these issues is not a story of grit alone. It is a story of understanding how language works: not just as a system of rules but as a two-way communication street that makes us dependent on other people's help. To help them help us is a skill onto itself—a skill we need to hone now more than ever. Maybe it will be just the thing that will save the future of transatlanticism.

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