Americans and foreign language skills

James Joyner of Outside the Beltway muses on the foreign language skills of Americans. His findings:

The utility of having American children devoting years mastering a language other than English is rather dubious from any utilitarian standard I can think of.

I’m a bit of a polyglot myself but I’ve always believed that the idea that Americans are somehow deficient for not spending more time studying foreign languages is a canard and very Eurocentric. An American living in Omaha can travel a thousand miles in any direction and not end up in a place where English is not the primary or, indeed, the only language spoken. There is nowhere in Europe from the western shore of Ireland to the foothills of the Urals in the east where you can travel a thousand miles and find the same language the primary language. Multiple languages is a survival skill in Europe and the differences in Europeans’ life experiences is reflected in their assumptions about what makes sense for other people to do.

I’d go a little farther. I don’t have the hard statistics to back this up but I’d be willing to bet that there are more Americans that speak Spanish than in any other country than Mexico, more Americans that speak Polish than in any other country than Poland, more Americans that speak Russian than in any other country than Russia, more Americans that speak Italian than in any other country than Italy, and so on for dozens of languages and countries.

And if this war on radical Islamist terrorism goes on for very long there will be more Americans that speak Arabic than in any other country. Period.

We Americans will do what strikes our fancy and what it’s practical to do.

2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Link

    A very interesting observation. While I must disagree about more Americans speaking Russian than in any other country in the world other than Russia (A very large percentage of German’s learned Russian as well as the people of former Soviet republics)

    I was searching on google for just this information and came across this site. Have you found any statistics to back your assertions up? I am looking for them and would be interested in them.

  • I haven’t found anything, Kevin, but I continue to look. If you find anything, will you please give me a heads-up?

    I suspect that there are more Russians here than anywhere except Russian. Add to that the very large number of Americans that learned Russian in Cold War days (I’m one of them). Don’t forget that America is quite a large country.

    I heard a radio program yesterday in which they said that the U. S. was the largest market for Spanish-language recordings. That suggests that there are a lot of Spanish-speakers here (as well as a lot of piracy elsewhere). I’m looking for that citation, too.

    Here’s an interesting site with statistics on Internet use by language. Almost ¾ of a million Americans access the Internet in Russian.

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