Multilingualism reconsidered

When I read this editorial back in December, I was on board with Kristof”s disdain of American monolingualism. Here is the joke Kristof leads off with

A quiz: If a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, and one who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is someone called who speaks no foreign languages at all?

Answer: an American.

We had the opportunity to live in China last year and during that time our kids acquired the language. Our family has put so much effort into helping the kids retain Chinese – from enrolling them in Chinese school to working (unsuccessfully, it seems) with the local public schools to have Chinese offered. Despite our efforts I have watched with dismay as Jie-jie and Mei-mei moved from playing exclusively in Chinese to rarely speaking it spontaneously. I mourned the loss of the language but Jie-jie took a much more pragmatic attitude, “Why should I speak Chinese?” she asked “Everyone here speaks English.”

Lately I have been feeling like Jie-jie is on to something.

When arrived at US customs on our return from China and entered the line for people holding US passports. It was quite a moment for us, having been out of the country for 10 months, to have the opportunity to pass through customs and not have to be in the “foreigners” queue. As we stood there I noticed how off it was that all of the signs were only in English (we were accustomed to signage in at least English, Chinese and Japanese) and lacking the pictograms we had become accustomed to seeing. In addition to having the typical citizens’ queue, there was a line for “New Immigrants.” Once again, the sign was in English only. There were several people in line ahead of us that ended up needing to be redirected. I felt a bit of disdain for my home country – why this provincial insistence on English only? But as I thought about it I became aware of the difficulty in identifying a language or two that would really make a dent in comprehension.

And then we spent most of the month of March this year in Sweden where pretty much everybody over the age of 10 and under the age of 60 speaks English. Our children picked up a bit of Swedish (with little accent) by watching the morning cartoons and playing with their friends. When we talked with our friends about the effort we were putting into the kids language acquisition they were nonplussed. Why would we be working so hard? Their children were going to acquire a second language (English) without all the stress.

But here is the thing. Chances are that whenever I travel to a place where they speak a language I have a bit of facility with (French, Russian, Chinese, Catalan, Spanish) a good number of the people I meet will speak English that is superior to my language skills in the language of that place. If we speak something other than English, it is only because I want the practice and they are humoring me. Now that we tend to be around University folks it is even more likely that I am surrounded by people who are fluent in English. In China and Sweden subtitled American movies and television shows are watched by many people. In Sweden, pop artists often sing in English (Sweden is a small market, after all).

Here in the U.S. you need to go to special bookstores to find reading in most other foreign languages. Some cable companies allow you to purchase foreign language television stations. DVDs may offer French and Spanish language tracks but you’ve got to do some real gymnastics to come up with DVDs in other languages (legit or not). Of course there are exceptions to this all – Spanish language being the major one, occasional foreign language films distributed widely in the U.S., etc.

So, the major obstacle to American multilingualism is the dominance of English. On average, it is going to be more difficult for a native English speaker to learn additional languages.

This week Jason and I decided that the kids are not going to finish the semester at Chinese School. There are so many reasons: after all our travel we are so far behind, the emphasis of the class has moved almost exclusively to writing and character recognition, Saturday Chinese school is stressing us out, we are finding that the kids can watch Chinese TV and do Rosetta stone at home in the time we would be spending on daily homework – that way they get more exposure to spoken Chinese… I could go on and on but at heart I think we have just decided to accept the fact that they are not going to retain their fluency. The best we can do is keep the language a little bit active, keep those neural pathways firing every now and then so that, when we get back to China, they have the tools to get back up to speed. I am still hoping to find a Chinese tutor closer to home and, if I am not traveling every week next year, I would try Chinese school again.

We’ve got to be where we are at, right?

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