Actually, the real question should be, “English, do you only speak it,” because that seems to be a huge problem with people for whom English is their first language. Particularly in America, they never bother to learn a second, and dog forbid that the average American would attempt a third.
At least Canadians have a cultural and political reason to also learn French, or at least be able to ask directions and order from menus in that language — but listen to a Canadian try to pronounce words in Spanish sometime if you want a laugh.
Oh — not all parts of America are immune to second languages, and if you live in a big melting pot city with a predominant non-Anglo cultural group, you are much more likely to be at least somewhat fluent in that language.
In Southern California, that means Spanish, which also means that I’ve heard Canadians ask for, with a straight face, “Some naa-chose and the fadge-eetas.”
Australians barely speak English, at least according to the Brits — and never mistake the latter for the former unless you want to get the look of death and have a strongly worded letter sent to the Daily Mail deriding the total lack of education of Americans. (I did that once, and I think I actually did it to Emma Thompson, whom I adore, at a charity event. Oops. Lame excuse: I was dating an Aussie at the time, and they did sound alike.)
Brits may know some words in other languages, but they make no pretense of even trying to pronounce them right. Or maybe they do, but they’re just stuck in the past.
There’s still a lot of debate over whether the way they pronounce “Don Quixote” — as “Daan Keyshot” instead of “Doan Key-ho-tay” — actually matches the way that people of Cervantes’ time would have said it.
Then again, that’s Castillian, and as most Hispanics in the Americas (except Argentina) would tell you that Spaniards can’t speak proper Spanish. Just like any American will tell you that Brits can’t speak (or spell) proper English, while the Canadians remain politely quiet because they’re stuck in a limbo between the two.
That is, they spell like Brits but sound (mostly) like Americans from the U.S. (Remember: Canadians — and Mexicans — are Americans, too.)
But this brings me back to the original question: Why is it, particularly in modern times, that most native English speakers do not know at least one other language, if not multiple languages?
On the one hand, maybe there’s no need, because English is the most spoken language in the world. However, it barely edges out Mandarin, and when it comes to native speakers, it falls to fourth place, after Mandarin, Spanish, and Hindi.
It’s all those other people who speak English as a second language that keep us in first place, but when it comes to total speakers, we’re only ahead by about 15 million out of over 1.1 billion for each of English and Mandarin.
Coming in behind Hindi is French, but the interesting thing here is that it has far more non-native speakers (203 million) than native speakers (only 77 million). This is largely due to colonial expansion, which brought the language to the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
I think a lot of people don’t realize this, but France looked to the south to colonize, and so left its fingerprints all over the second-largest continent. To this day, French and various native dialects are still the official languages in many African countries.
The influences in Canada and Louisiana are obvious, and it was the Vietnamese finally kicking out the French in 1954 that led to the involvement of the U.S. in its second-longest war.
Of course, dating back to after their Revolution, French became the language of diplomacy for one simple reason: The revolutionaries, who were actually quite conservative reactionaries, pulled a George Orwell and rewrote the dictionary with the idea that any word in the language could have exactly one meaning only.
Great for lawyers and diplomats. Shit for poets and artists.
But… once upon a time, educated people learned their own language and French. But there was more. Part of the curriculum included Greek and Latin, and this was the case in British schools until fairly recently and American schools until… I’m not sure, really, but I’m guessing sometime around or just after WW II.
However, it is still taught in some schools, surprisingly, particularly private Catholic schools, not surprisingly. Hey — they could always overturn part of Vatican II someday and go back to Mass in 100% Latin.
But go read Edgar Allan Poe, for example. He was just your average artistic drunk from Baltimore who died at forty — quite possibly the victim of a voter fraud scheme — but he frequently led off his stories with quotes from the original Latin, Greek, or French.
James A. Garfield, whose major claim to fame is as the second U.S. President to be assassinated, could write in Greek and Latin at the same time with both hands. I bet that party trick got all the ladies. Or not.
But the emphasis on Greek and Latin was so that people could read the classics — Homer, the Greek and Roman Playwrights, and the Roman histories — in the original, not to mention a lot of the New Testament in the language it was written in.
LOL — how many many people think it was written in English by King James? Nope. Hebrew and a little Aramaic for the O.T., and Greek for the N.T., mostly, although the Gospels were possibly based on an Aramaic source.
It was nearly 1,400 years later that the whole thing (as opposed to just various books) wound up being translated into English for the first time — well before the King James Version.
Meanwhile, once upon a time in America (and Britain and anywhere else with mostly native English speakers) learning a second and even third language was the norm, not the exception.
And for the rest of the world that must do business with this English-speaking cultural empire, it’s a requirement, really. That’s why you’ll wind up talking to so many call center operators with allegedly American names but that tell-tale hint of a beautiful Indian accent that makes English just sound so much nicer.
Call center dudes (and you’re mostly all dudes): Kudos! You speak my native language better than I do. Plus, if I actually bother to ask because I’m truly interested, you engage in wonderful conversations.
But as far as native English speakers, what changed, and why have Americans in particular become so averse to even taking the time to learn another language?
One big reason, probably, is that foreign languages, like the arts, have gradually been bled out of American education. I was probably among the last cohorts who got the options, so that for my entire secondary education, I was tracked into one of the big three.
I was lucky enough to be put into Spanish from the start. I had other friends who got stuck into German and French and didn’t make it past a year, and having tried to learn German and French later, I can see why.
The former has impossibly difficult declensions and the latter is impossible to understand because vowels and terminal consonants just get eaten and obscured.
I think I remember my older half-brother telling me that when he came into school, a decade before me, the choices also included things like Russian, Japanese, Greek, and Hebrew. Or something. But much more than Europe’s Top Three.
And yes, I’ve tried all four of those, and Hindi, and just… no. Russian grammar makes German look simple, Japanese has way too many writing systems, Greek… okay, I actually kind of almost made sense out of Greek. However, Hebrew. like Arabic, which build words by taking a stem, sticking it in the middle of prefixes and suffixes, and then dumping the vowels just didn’t work for me. Sorry, y’all!
But I got Spanish, so I ran with it through all the possible five years, then took a year of German after Spanish ran out in my senior year, and a semester of German in college and… dumped German, stuck with Spanish.
However, look at the subtext in all the above. I’ve dipped my toes into a metric fuckton of non-English languages, including ones not mentioned above: Norwegian, Italian, Gaelic, Hindi, Old English, Hawai’ian, Korean, and Sanskrit.
A lot of them have been way too difficult and easily abandoned, but here’s the point: I tried. And The English-speaking world does not, and the only conclusion I can come to is that it’s because of some sort of fear.
I could easily try to blame it on imperialism, colonization, and the inherited arrogance of the British upper class before WW II (“We’re wealthy and white, so we’re just better than you are”), but I don’t think that’s the cause in the long run, and not in the U.S.
However, I think that a lot of native English speakers are just afraid of words and grammar — especially ones that don’t belong to their language. That fear is kind of ridiculous if you think about it, though. Just look at English spelling. It makes no sense at all.
Or let me rephrase that: “Inglish speling maiks no sins at al.”
You probably understood that perfectly, and it’s what a language like Spanish does. If you know how to say a word in Spanish, you should be able to spell it. I say “should” because they silent H and the similarity of how B and V are pronounced does screw with native speakers, so I have seen written errors like “asta la vista” (instead of “hasta”) and spelling the word for cow as “baca” instead of “vaca.”
I’ll get to how English spelling got so messy while still being less of a mess than it was in a future post. But getting back to the concept of fear keeping English speakers from learning another language, I’ve had firsthand experience of this in my role as a playwright.
For the stage, I tend to write about historical subjects or real-life characters. Ironically, the only full-length play of mine based on an entirely made-up story is also the only one to ever almost make it to production only to be canceled at the last minute — twice.
The second time was because we had been scheduled to open two weeks after the COVID lockdown began in 2020. I’m convinced that the play is cursed.
But… writing about real people often involves other languages. For example, my play Bill & Joan, about that time in Mexico City in 1951 that William S. Burroughs shot and killed his wife at a cocktail party, is built on a flashback structure with the modern-day story taking place as he’s interrogated by two cops.
That would be two Mexico City cops, so there’s a lot of Spanish dialogue. Of course, I only used it when I wanted it to appear that the Burroughs character didn’t understand what they were saying but also knowing that there was a good chance that a lot of my audience might know exactly what they were saying.
In every developmental reading I had of the play over a long, long time, whenever a non-bilingual native English speaker hit one of those lines, there was no predicting what would come out of their mouth, but it was frequently at about the level of those Canadians ordering Mexican food.
Another play, Strange Fruit, deals with a bunch of characters throughout the 20th Century, and because of those people and locations, there are lines in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, French, Chinese, and probably a few others.
In these cases, it’s not quite as extensive, but I’d see the same result in readings — except with the Yiddish, for some reason, except that in modern America, even among the goyim, Yiddish expressions have become such a lingua franca of comedy that they don’t appear to be foreign.
Of course, I’m writing them in the Latin alphabet, not the original, so that makes a difference.
One writer/actor I worked with a lot (who is, sadly, no longer with us) was a very interesting case because, despite being of Hispanic origin, he didn’t speak a word of Spanish because he was of that generation who was raised by a generation of immigrants from Mexico who wanted their kids to blend in and succeed.
The Sleepy Lagoon Murder, the Zoot Suit Riots, and a lot of anti-Mexican racism at the time probably had a lot to do with his parents wanting the kids to seem as non-Hispanic as possible. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they had tried to pass as Italian.
It was a long-running joke between us, in fact, that the tall, very white, Irish-Scandinavian dude spoke Spanish and he didn’t.
But it wasn’t even a matter of he never bothered to learn. He was never even allowed. And any time he was reading a script of mine that even had so much as a single non-English word in it, he wouldn’t even try to pronounce it or even approximate it.
Literal gibberish would come out of his mouth like his tongue had hit a speedbump that disengaged his brain.
And I think that’s how a lot of American English-only speakers react to a foreign language. It’s the old knee-jerk, “Oh, I can never learn that. It’s hard!”
But I can guarantee you this: With that mindset, you never would have learned English as a second language no matter what you started from. And how did you learn English in the first place?
Trial and error and being immersed in it, and it’s the same damn thing with any other language, no matter how young or old you are when you start.
For maybe your first five years of life, you only knew simple words and made a lot of mistakes and probably didn’t even know how to write or spell yet. But, over the thirteen years after that, you got pretty damn fluent. Hell, you were pretty damn fluent before you got out of grade school.
Judging by internet comments, however, a frightening majority of native English speakers never learned to spell. But, again, our language is not at all easy to spell.
That’s why I’m glad I learned it first. I would have given up if I’d tried to learn it second, no matter how young I was when I started.
What second language would you like to learn? Maybe it’s something from your background — what was spoken where one or more of your ancestors came from. Maybe it’s from a culture you admire — French cuisine, Japanese Manga, Korean cinema, Egyptian art, IKEA furniture…
But pick one and give it a try. There are plenty of online resources. And if the first one doesn’t stick, try another. And another. And another. And, who knows? Bottom line is that learning a new language is a lot easier than you think it is.
You just have to stop thinking that it’s not.