Not teaching foreign languages will make America more insular

Young man crouching down at edge of beach

Read by Brenda

West Virginia is about 500 km (300 miles) from the country’s capital of Washington, DC, but it feels worlds away. The demise of coal mining and poverty have plunged it into the heart of the opioid crisis and despite promises from a whole string of politicians, nobody has come to their rescue. Perhaps this feeling of isolation has prompted its largest university to eliminate its world language program. Other U.S. universities are making similar cuts.

But at the heart of this is the knowledge that English has become the lingua franca of the world—so why bother learning anything else when everyone speaks your language?

This is the very definition of insular thinking. After all, the U.S. is a huge island. Mexico, that big country at the southern border, is vacationland and where all those immigrants gather who want to get into the U.S. And Canada? They’re just like us, unless you go to Quebec, in which case you get to practice those two words of high school French that you still remember.

“Bonjour!” “Merci!” and “Au revoir!“

Oh, wow, that’s even three words!

But don’t worry, if you can’t remember these, either, all the Quebecois know English, so you’re off the hook.

People are often awed by my fluent German. While soaking up the compliments, I also cringe. I’ve been living here for decades—shouldn’t I speak fluently? The painful answer to this is: no.

Wikipedia says it best in its opening sentence: “Language education in the United States has historically involved teaching American English to immigrants…”

This mentality is embedded in the language itself. Why do U.S. citizens feel legitimate calling themselves “Americans” when this expression applies to people from all of North America, Central America, and South America? Yet the overriding economic and cultural influence of the U.S. has brought the whole world to understand that American means “us.”

I didn’t think twice about this possible distinction until I innocently replied to a question about my provenance from a Venezuelan woman while I was living in Spain.

“¿De dónde eres?” Where are you from?

“Soy americana.” I’m American.

“¡Yo también!” Me, too!

My first thought was: No, you’re not. She was clearly a native Spanish speaker and not from Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, or the UK. But why would she lie? She quickly elaborated.

“Soy venezolana!” I’m Venezuelan.

I instantly realized my error. Of course, she’s American, too, it’s just that we English speakers would never say that. For us, “American” always denotes someone from the United States. But Spanish has a word for that; it’s estadounidense. This would be something along the lines of “Unitedstatian.”

Why don’t we have an equivalent word in English?

At least I learned from that encounter to introduce myself either as a norteamericana (still not quite accurate, as this applies to Canada and Mexico, too) but mostly I said estadounidense.

I also recall the exclamation of an American I overheard in Spain. “What are all these foreigners doing here?” He wasn’t completely serious and everyone laughed, but the idea of a German saying such a thing is unthinkable.

That’s because Germans are professional vacationers. When I first moved here, I was confused by a question posed to me by a coworker as summer approached.

“Where are you going on vacation?”

I looked around. Who said anything about vacation? Had someone mistakenly told her that I was going on vacation?

“I’m not going on vacation.”

This answer felt disingenuous, like I was missing the point, which turned out to be entirely correct. Germans take at least one vacation every year, usually in the summertime. This is usually embellished with shorter vacations during the year, easily done by using up a couple of their 30 days of annual leave in combination with the 7,000 public holidays they have.

OK, the 7,000 is an exaggeration—but the 30 days is not. 

An insular mentality is a common thread running through a large segment of the U.S. When I go back for a visit and chat with a stranger and tell them I live in Germany, I am often met with a blank stare.

“Germany? Wow. How do you like it there?”

I keep my response as simple as the question.

“I like it. It’s nice.”

That usually ends the conversation. Since most people there have never been to Europe, and they don’t really know exactly where Germany is or anything else about it, as much as they would like to strike up a conversation, they are at a loss as to how to ask reasonable questions.

This contrasts sharply with Germans’ reaction to my revelation that I am from the U.S.

“Where in the U.S.?


“Ohio, Ohio…up north, right?”

“Yes, it’s on one of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie.”

The mention of “Lake Erie” even inspired a professorial middle-aged German woman sporting a linen suit and red-framed glasses I met at a book reading to spontaneously recite a German poem, “John Maynard,” written by Theodore Fontane, a celebrated German poet from the late 19th century. It tells of a Lake Erie ship captain who heroically puts his passengers’ lives before his own after a fire breaks out. The city of Buffalo, New York, which is featured in the poem, even has an English translation of it enshrined on a plaque on the Lake Erie shore.

Hope looms on the horizon in the unexpected form of Netflix. They have effectively broken Hollywood’s myopic grip on the worldwide movie market by showing K-dramas—which, thanks to Netflix, even have this special name—plus movies and series directed by and starring non-Americans.

This is as good a place as any to highlight that the Academy Awards give out exactly one award to the “Foreign Language Film of the Year.” This means 24 categories dedicated to U.S. productions and the entire rest of the world gets one.

I feel that U.S. citizens should start enhancing their cosmopolitanism by calling themselves Unitedstatian rather than American. Better yet, how about strengthening and expanding foreign language programs and exchanges abroad instead of cutting them. After all, when you live on an island, you have to make an extra effort to communicate with and create bonds with other lands.

Especially when you are the most powerful island on the planet.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels

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