Monday, July 14, 2008

The So Called American Monoculture

Recently, a prominent progressive presidential candidate, who I will not mention, derided Americans for not learning other languages.

It just so happens that I am an elitist bilingual snit, and multilingualism is something that I've been interested in for some time.

Have you every noticed that an extremely large number of people around the world seem to be able to learn passable English, while it is rare for Americans to muster a passable stab at speaking other languages?

The common notion is that the monolingual status of America is some sort of sign that there is something wrong with America. A common response to the difficulties Americans have mastering other languages is that there must be something wrong with our country.

I put forward that the reason for this oddity is the result of The United States having one of the most diverse cultures and the interesting observation that English is the most heterogeneous languages in the history of mankind.

More importantly, as a nation of immigrants, Americans have developed a tolerant ear toward people learning English. Americans are more willing to let people get by with grammatical mistakes than many other languages.

There is also something really bizarre about English grammar and vocabulary. English allows more gramatical constructs and has a more cosmopolitan vocabulary than other languages. The English vocabulary has some 500,000 words compared to 100,000 words in French or 125,000 words in German.

I used to think that the massive vocabulary would make English hard to learn. Actually it does the opposite.

The vast majority of words that exist in French (and other romance languages such as Spanish and Italian) also exist in English. A French speaker need simply learn a few basic English verbs, English pronunciation and, voila, they are speaking passable English.

An American wanting to learn French will find it extremely difficult to directly translate the myriad of weird English language constructs into French. I've found that I can speak with a French student who has had only one year of English; whereas an English speaker needs multiple years of training to speak passable French.

Of course, the primary reason that English is easy to learn is that the immigration friendly United States has a tolerant ear for English newbies.

Homogenous countries like France and Germany are less likely to lend a tolerant ear to newcomers.

The United States numbers among the most tolerant nations in history. The reason that jabs at American monoculture have such a strong impact is that many Americans wish we were even more tolerant. When the progressive politician attacked Americans for monoculturism, the audience cheered. A true monoculture would not cheer. The reason that this clown's attack worked is because America has never been a monoculture and never even aspired to being a monoculture.

Americans might be accused of having a Eurocentric world view. The American mononculture is largely a fantasy conjured up by the left.

I guess I will end the post with personal experience: I learned French in high school and college. I then spent six months touring France sur la bicyclette. I was having an extremely hard time speaking with French people.

During the trip, I hooked up with a group of Canadians. The Canadians couldn't speak a lick of French, but wore clothes that proudly screamed Canada.

When I was with the Canadians, the native French speakers suddenly could understand everything I said. They also spoke with greater clarity making it easier for me to understand them.

Anyway, if you plan on trying your college French in France, you should begin conversations with the simple phrase: je suis de Canada.


Scott Hinrichs said...

I also enjoy foreign languages. I have a rudimentary understanding of a couple, and I have fairly good command of a couple of others.

When learning Norwegian, I was amazed at how "word poor" the language was. At one point, I gained access to an unabridged Norwegian dictionary -- what they call a "leksikon." 70% of the words in it were Norwegianized spellings of words used in English. It is even more so today, as the younger generation is constantly exposed to American media content.

y-intercept said...

Cato Institute did a podcast (MP3) last week where Neal McClusky noted that one of the justifications given by progressives for establishing a state monopoly of education was to establish a common language. Private schools tend to do a better job teaching foreign languages. They would even teach students in their primary language if that is what the parents desired.

You could argue that American monoculture is due to a monopoly on education. However, Obama was complaining about the American people and not the progressive school system.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I managed my way here through your photo site.

Anyhow very interesting thoughts on the whole. I was a bit shocked to hear that you think America isn't monocultural, but I suppose it is in fact true, as we are more than accepting of mistakes in grammar and more than accommodating to new learners. However, I would not dispute a strong sense of nationalism and ethnocentrism when it comes to an American and his/her homeland.

As far as learning French goes I've had a considerable bout with it so far, and it has a surprisingly predictable morphology pattern when compared with many English words. Truth be told, sure conjugation etc. is a pain, you can certainly build an extensive vocabulary as easily as an speaker of French.

Many thanks for an interesting entry.

y-intercept said...

When you compare The U.S. to other nations, I think you would find that the US has been substantially more accomodating of other cultures than other nations.

A true monoculture wouldn't applaud complaints against monoculturism. A true monoculture is so caught up in its cultural superiority that the argument wouldn't even register. The FLDS holed up in their compounds simply don't register complaints that they are an oppressive culture.