When I tell somebody that I speak German, their reaction is nearly always something along the lines of, “Cool! Are you German?” (or, is your family?). My negative response is then met with confusion and an inquiry as to why I speak the language, often coupled with (well-meaning) doubts or questions about my level of fluency. While nearly every single one of these interactions comes from a place of genuine curiosity, the pervasiveness of them in my life, as well as those of my friends who learned other languages in a similar manner, is indicative of something deeper within U.S. American culture.
The truth is that I learned German because I wanted to. I grew up hearing stories from my parents about their time living abroad when they were in high school and college, and was always impressed by my mom’s mastery of Spanish as well as both of my parents’ French-speaking abilities. As early as I can remember, I always knew that someday, I, too, wanted to have my own international adventures, learning about as many cultures and languages as I possibly could.
My freshman year of college, classes were held entirely online due to COVID policies. After a rather lonely semester spent in my room in Phoenix, my family and I decided that this time might be the perfect opportunity for me to finally realize my dream of living abroad. We got to planning, and eventually decided that I would take a break from school and spend the next six months attending a language school and living with a host family in Freiburg, Germany.
What followed was arguably the best half a year of my life, and I met my host parents, Brigitte and Robby (whom I now refer to as my German parents), with whom I remain incredibly close to this day. By the end of my stay, I had achieved a certified B2 level of proficiency in German (basic fluency), and my language level has continued to rise via continued study and exposure since.
To some U.S. Americans, Germany might seem like a random place to choose for a study abroad experience, especially without a familial connection of some sort. It is far too long of a story to delve into as to why I ended up there. After all, the majority of my family has been in the United States for multiple generations, with the most recent immigrant being my great-grandfather, who came to the United States from the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia at the time). My Swedish last name raises a lot of eyebrows, but even it has been in my family for generations. None of us are really Swedish — at least, not in any relevant sense.
All of this being the case, it is definitely confusing for many in the United States why I “bothered” to learn German, and it has happened more than once that somebody argued with me or insisted that I must be German, simply because I speak the language. Yet, when I am abroad, I very seldom — in fact, almost never — face the same level of disbelief or questioning. So why is it so pervasive within the borders of the United States?
It is no secret that, in many other countries, Americans are often made fun of for our tendency to expect everyone else to speak English, regardless of what country we find ourselves in. In some ways, this makes sense. After all, English is the world’s most commonly taught language. It is spoken by at least a small portion of the population in 101 different countries, and it is the official language of both the UN and NATO, along with several other significant international organizations. In short, English is everywhere.
Perhaps, this explains why nearly 80% of U.S. Americans only speak English. In contrast, only about 40% of the world population is monolingual, with 65% of Europeans speaking at least two languages fluently and 20 out of the 25 most linguistically diverse countries being located in Africa. Although over sixty-five million U.S. residents report speaking a language other than English at home, this group accounts for a mere 20.7 percent of the U.S. population. Given these numbers, it makes sense that people meeting me would assume I learned German at home.
The existence of such statistics may not seem particularly problematic upon first glance, due to the prevalence of English on the global stage, which has popularized the opinion that it is not practical for native English speakers to dedicate time to learning another language; however, this could not be further from the truth.
As the world becomes more interconnected and multilingual than ever before, the monolingual culture of the United States is putting it at a disadvantage. 96% of the global consumers — the majority of whom do not speak English — reside outside of the United States, and one in five U.S. jobs is dependent on global trade. A quarter of employers in the United States are reporting a loss of business due to the lack of foreign language proficiency in the workforce. In a 2014 study commissioned by the Coalition for International Education, nearly 40% of businesses attributed their failure to reach their international potential to language barriers.
U.S. monolingual culture is not only affecting businesses: it is taking a toll on our scientific and diplomatic progress, too. In 2004, English-speaking scientists from the United States failed to recognize the danger of the avian flu epidemic due to the original reports being published in Chinese, and the Department of State and the Department of Defense have reported increasing difficulties in staffing thousands of language positions vital to the United States’ diplomatic, intelligence and military progression. If our culture continues on its current linguistic trajectory, the consequences for us will be serious.
As the U.S. government continues to cut funding to language education programs, the problem worsens. Between 1997 and 2008, the number of elementary schools teaching foreign languages dropped from 31% to 25%, and middle school numbers fell from 75%to just 58%. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of students in higher education enrolled in language courses declined by over 111,000 spots, meaning that a mere 7% of college students were studying a foreign language -– marking the first time numbers had fallen since 1995. Due to a lack of resources, students attending schools in underprivileged areas are at an even greater disadvantage than their peers.
What can be done? Simply put, more funding and resources must be dedicated to foreign language education at all levels, particularly for younger students, who are more receptive to new languages by nature.
Colleges and universities need to make the teaching of languages a bigger priority through their foreign language requirements for students. Being multilingual should not be viewed as merely an asset, but as a necessity in today’s world.
While I am proud of all the work I have done to make learning German a possibility for myself, similar opportunities need to be made more easily accessible to larger groups of students who might lack the extra time and resources that I was so fortunate to have available for me.
The United States is already behind. It is time for us to catch up — and to avoid the dire consequences if we do not. I hope that someday, it will no longer be so commonplace for me to hear the question, “Are you German?”