Speaking American

5 times more learn EnglishOriginally published in the Fenton Patch newspaper December 2011


There is a joke that goes: If you speak three languages you are multilingual. If you speak two languages you are bilingual. If you speak one language you are American.

I took four years of French at Fenton High School. A counselor told me that I needed at least two years of a foreign language to get into a good college. For years I wondered about the benefit of learning French. When I found myself in trouble on a French speaking Caribbean island, the mind went blank. But now I realize that what I learned about conjugation of verbs and sentence structure has helped me both in freelance writing and learning Spanish.

Other than the counselor, no one put much importance on learning a second language. The United States stood as the powerhouse of the world. Not only had we defeated the enemy on two different fronts, but we loaned money to many countries to help them rebuild after the war.  I remember many comments from adults like “I don’t need to learn another language. My dollar does the talking and if they want it, then they will learn to speak English.”

In the late 1990’s I attended a job fair in the U.S.A. for a U.S. company.  Over 200 people showed up. Management asked all those who spoke a second language to go to another room. The remainder were thanked for coming and dismissed.

In Bogotá only some English is taught in public schools. Private school is the preferred method of education in the country and all those schools teach English. Some are bilingual where many of the classes are taught in English or another language such as German or Italian. There are also schools that promote three languages. Language only schools for leaning everything from English to Chinese exist in many locations throughout the city. In fact there seems to be an increase in schools teaching Chinese.

One of my 15 year old students speaks fluent Spanish, Italian and English. A former student who went to a public school and university learned English from me, then took a job in Germany. Now she is getting her masters degree in chemistry from a university in Berlin. The fact that my stepdaughter speaks fluent, Spanish, English and French landed her a job in Asia at a compensation that is several times the U.S. average wage.

Yesterday at a small social gathering I again felt like low man on the totem pole. Of the eight people present from four different countries, I was the only one who spoke just two languages. Even the children of a French diplomat with a Spanish speaking mother conversed changing between four languages.

Recently I spent some time in Singapore. English is the official language of the country, but signs are written in four different languages. In schools the students must choose one other language to study. Most choose the language of their family, Hindu, Chinese or Malaysian. What grabbed my eye was a sign which read: There are five times more people in China learning English than there are people in England.

I don’t know whether or not future job opportunities for Americans lies in being bilingual, but at this point, it sure can’t hurt to become fluent in more than one language. As for travel, I can easily attest that it is much more enjoyable when you can converse in the native language, because it seems that the American dollar does not talk like it use to.

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