Hanging on to multiple languages in the United States is hard work. English is ubiquitous. People from many countries around the world want to talk to you in English. And English is everywhere as an international lingua franca of business and diplomacy.
Most Americans don’t know what the word “polyglot” means, which kind of suggests it is not really a thing here.
I don’t mean to complain. I mean, how could I complain about being a native speaker of English when English’s continuing spread during my lifetime seems pretty much guaranteed? For native English speakers, our linguistic life is just plain easy. It seems like an almost grotesque advantage.
As a foreign-language lover, though, I sometimes feel as if I am swimming upstream during the flood of the century when I could instead be swinging idly in a hammock between two trees. The number of Facebook requests I get from total strangers around the globe requesting help in English is shocking. It can make a girl feel like the belle of the ball even if she is wearing aged jeans and her socks have holes in them.
Polyglottery is way more built into the social fabric in other cultures than in the U.S. Let’s compare Europe and the U.S. for starters.
Crossing the border from Italy to France, from France to Germany, from Germany to Poland provides megagobs of opportunities for language practice. In the U.S., on the other hand, you can cross from Michigan to Indiana to Illinois and you are going to find a whole lot of English. You can keep crossing state borders and keep finding English. And cross into Canada and still find English.
Yeah, we have a lot of Spanish, but don’t let anyone fool you: English is doing just fine over here.
Everyone here knows we are a melting pot. Many of us are told that many times before we graduate from high school. And we are also told how great it is that we are a melting pot. (Which it is.) But we mostly melted into English.
Most multilingual people living here today grew up speaking another language at home. I am not one of them.
My life here—like the lives of many Americans—is conducted in English. Work is in English. Parties are in English. Reading is in English. Only three percent of the books published in the U.S. are translations from other languages. The world reads us—and we read us, too. It is not good for our egos or our sense of linguistic and cultural proportion.
At the same time, unbelievable language-learning opportunities abound, especially in our urban centers. In New York City, where I live, we have about 800 languages. I’ve seen kids play in Yiddish in Williamsburg, adults flirt in Arabic in Bay Ridge, and tourists get lost in Central Park in easily more than a dozen languages. I can sometimes hear several languages before I even walk out the front door of my apartment building in the morning.
It’s true that in parts of the U.S., people are at times sadly suspicious of those who pursue foreign-language interests. But walk around Manhattan with language skills and your skills will probably come in handy at some point, and they will probably be valued.
Surely they could be more valued, though, so now I will dream a bit of the future. What will the months and years ahead bring to us American language enthusiasts? The world will probably get even more Englishy, so there’s that.
Perhaps though, just perhaps, polyglottery could flourish alongside it. There have been exciting language developments in recent years, many technology-enabled, that make this seem slightly more feasible to me now than in the past.
With the internet, language lovers all over the world are connected in ways they never were before. High-speed web access, Skype, various low-cost interactive communication capabilities, etc., are reaching into the far corners of the planet. Instead of merely reading about Iraq or India or China, Americans can actually talk to people from Iraq and India and China. Reading about current events does not compare to speaking to people residing within the current events.
In addition, materials are steadily improving. I am a huge fan of old-fashioned paper books on language; my shelves are full of them. But YouTube-based video instruction, spaced repetition, and myriad technological advances make it easier than ever to hear and acquire accents and native rhythms and to learn efficiently. There is Memrise. There is Forvo. There are millions of places to ask questions and get answers from native speakers. (I personally take advantage of Facebook language groups, where I almost always get instant, useful help, to satisfy my chronic language curiosity.)
All this means you can learn other people’s languages even if you don’t have a penny in your bank account. Or even have a bank account. And if you learn other people’s language, you can reach other cultures unmediated.
As free online language documentation, oral and written, explodes, sounds and ideas are readily available to those of us who want them. People who are under 25 now may not realize how radically different this world is from the one I grew up in in the 1970s and 1980s.
And what about business? Do foreign language skills have value in an international economy? As you know, we have a relatively capitalist view of things in the United States. (Ahem.) Therefore, an important question here is, do foreign languages have financial value? If they have financial value, they have a much greater chance of having cultural value. And I think they do have value—of both kinds—and that there is a possibility that, with time, more Americans will begin to appreciate them.
By the way, dear people from other parts of the world, please don’t judge us capitalists too harshly. Americans do not get funding for projects of the mind in the same way I have observed in, say, Europe. Often when Europeans hear about my six-year-old language project, Words & Worlds of New York—which has involved my studying 19 languages, blogging about the experience, and reviewing hundreds of products across those languages for my website—they ask what organization or grant is funding it.
None. I fund it myself, through my various language-related professional activities. That is common here.
Now, if you could please indulge me in a wild American-style polyglot fantasy, I would be grateful. In my fantasy, international business demands cause employers in the U.S. to start recruiting more employees at least in part on the basis of their skills in second and even third languages. With greater frequency, multilingual employees receive a bump in standard pay because of these skills.
Companies begin testing interested employees for language-learning aptitude, perhaps through a test in the vein of the Hi-LAB, which I learned about last year from linguist-writer Michael Erard. This particular test was originally developed by the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, on the principle that it is much more productive to offer language training to military personnel who will soak it up swiftly than to people who will struggle despite their best efforts.
Still fantasizing here: Employees who display major talent and are interested in being sent overseas could take an intensive six-week language course, perhaps at a place like Middlebury, which is world-renowned for its immersion programs where students take an oath to speak only in the target language every minute of the day. (Ow! But so cool!)
These linguistically adept employees go abroad, where they deploy their business skills alongside their high-octane foreign-language abilities. They enjoy the professional and personal benefits of expanding their language knowledge and their world.
They come home. (Or not.) They tell their friends. And they tell two friends. And so on and so on and so on. It is a virtuous circle that leads to more polyglots. And more understanding of and support for polyglots.
In Europe, polyglot events have been going on for a few years now. For example, there is the annual Polyglot Conference, which began in 2013 in Budapest, Hungary, and then traveled in 2014 to Novi Sad, Serbia. There is the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. There is a generally established multilingual and polyglot culture that is just plain further along than ours in the United States.
Many American polyglots don’t even know about one another’s existence. I want to find them. The thought of an American polyglot studying all alone in his or her living room in a small town somewhere makes me just want to get on a plane and drive to their house and tell them quietly and reassuringly: “There are others, you know.”
Next October, the Polyglot Conference will come to New York City for the first major polyglot event this side of the Atlantic. Hundreds of language enthusiasts will descend on Manhattan from around the world for a weekend of language talks and linguistic camaraderie.
I am one of the co-organizers of Polyglot Conference NYC 2015, working alongside two extraordinary polyglots, Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings, who originated the conference series in Europe. To be involved in this innovative event is an honor that also happens to bring me much personal joy.
It is appropriate for such an event to take place in the most multilingual city in the country—perhaps the most multilingual city in the world. I am out of my mind with excitement to see what brand of the polyglot dream will land here. The conference will, I hope, act as a kind of anchor for those who have long been attracted to other languages, while also inspiring many young American learners to join them.
With all that has been melted and melded into our country, I feel it is time to enjoy a bigger, bolder vision, one that looks outward as much as inward, that greets the whole world and welcomes it in.
About the Author:
Ellen Jovin lives in Manhattan. She likes grammar, polyglots, and sushi. She and her husband run a 15-year-old communication skills training company called Syntaxis. You are welcome to visit her Words & Worlds of New York website, where you can read about her New York language-learning adventures and browse product reviews. You are also most cordially invited to Polyglot Conference NYC 2015!
Languages Around the Globe will always be free. However there are expenses with keeping a website up and running and devoting time and energy to provide you with more, high quality content. LATG is supported by Patreon. Click below to become a patron and earn some cool stuff for your generosity. We’re currently working to make the website advertisement free for your convenience!