What John Brown Doesn’t Understand About Language in the United States

Tehrangeles, San Fernando Valley, California (from Shahre Farang).

Perusing John Brown’s long-running blog on public diplomacy, I was jarred to find his crotchety rant about the minimalist linguistic antics of the young Americans he is forced to listen to on the Washington, D.C., Metro. He compared these inarticulate slobs baying into their iPhones, like — unfavorably? — to the crisp, articulate Croatians whom he taught, in English, during a recent detail to Dubrovnik.  Brown writes:

“It is also enchanting, while enjoying the privilege to give my course, to be blessed with hearing complete sentences, increasingly passé in America, coming from the mouths of twenties-something, even if uttered with an ‘accent.’ Moreover, the absence among my current English-speaking Dubrovnik students of uptalk, unfortunately still prevalent in the U.S., is equivalent to being spared of aural torture.”

Beyond an extraordinary contempt for young Americans who are still learning – some, apparently, in Brown’s charge – Brown demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the nature of language both in the United States and in Europe that he views through a  prismatic Anglophone bias he proclaims to decry.

Brown apparently missed all the talk about dramatic demographic shifts in the United States that doomed the campaign of Mitt Romney, who not incidentally speaks excellent French. Brown does not list the languages he speaks, and presumably he speaks many, because he served two decades in the U.S. Foreign Service. But he may be forgiven for missing this huge demographic shift because 1) nobody talks about any of the linguistic implications regarding those demographics beyond the growing Latino population and 2) Brown is apparently only listening in on the Metro’s English conversations.

This eavesdropping is entirely self-selecting because English is the common, if not official, language of the United States. But Brown no longer knows his own country: on aggregate, 20 percent of Americans — that’s one in five — speak a language other than English in the home. The Census catalogs more than 300 languages spoken in this country; I’ve seen listed more than 400. After Spanish — whose speakers in this country alone outnumber Canadians — is Chinese (2.5 million speakers), Tagalog (1.5 million speakers), French (!) (1.4 million speakers), Vietnamese (1.2 million speakers), German (1.1 million speakers) and Korean (1.1 million speakers). I would assert that the United States is the most linguistically diverse country in the world.

The linguistic environment in Europe is the inverse of the United States, right down to the self-selection. The continent has long been linguistically diverse and has traded common languages over the centuries. Those Croatians Brown admires so much were entirely self-selected for their own benefit if not his — he entered the English-speaking classroom much as he would have entered an English-dubbed movie theater, because he could not have functioned, much less found his way there, otherwise. As much as the Croatians have achieved, his students are not typical of the population at large and I would suggest if he had traveled inland from the tourist-dominated Adriatic to Osijek or Vukovar he would find far less English proficiency.

The European aspiration of population migration, enabled by economic integration and by some lingua franca, is largely a myth. Beyond a limited elite — which I can attest from personal experience it is easy, again, to be deceived by a false self-selection — in fact there has been only modest economic migration across the European Union, with only about two percent of Europeans living outside their country of origin. (That’s a dramatic comparison to our 20 percent.) The primary language of European integration is English, and those who learn the language in reality generally flock to local, rather than international, capitals and locations.

Back in the United States, if it is the fact that the “80 percent” (to borrow a phrase, perhaps) do not speak a foreign language that Brown laments, that is far more a result of our educational system, which must balance practical demands with language-education for an English-speaking majority against the needs of a growing immigrant population of diverse linguistic background who also require education in the public language. Put it this way: ask any parent if they want their child to learn a second (or third!) language, they would definitely say yes. Informed that the best way to do this is to immerse them starting from pre-school, they would likely demur; skills in English for success in the United States  are far more important on balance than skills in another language — as Brown has made all too clear in his tirade about our youth’s facility with the language of Uncle Walt.

But at the same time, our language diversity is a natural boon for a country that still dominates the global economy and international trade, except our institutions don’t really know how to take advantage of it. We don’t have very many language schools and most programs are primarily structured to study and teach languages to those who don’t speak these languages. How do we take advantage of and enable those who speak the “strategic languages” needed in foreign commerce, intelligence, and diplomacy? The talent is there, but the institutions and resources are not prepared to absorb them. In my experience this is the grown-up version of the parents’ pre-school dilemma: in relation to virtually any other marketable skill, language will always lag. Companies and the government want primary skills and view languages as a side or additional benefit. Translators and interpreters can be hired as necessary. (I don’t agree, but that’s the way it is.)

Brown wouldn’t appear to know the advantages we enjoy or the challenges our native speakers of foreign languages face. Instead, he indulges in the kind of cheap cultural contempt for the United States common at the bottom of the political spectrum where the anti-American left and the cultural-warrior right often uneasily meet. Americans are a lot smarter, bigger, harder-working, and tolerant than most of the world gives us credit for, and it’s sad to see a practitioner of public diplomacy trafficking in these kinds of wholly unsubstantiated stereotypes.


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