Americans and Foreign Languages: Our Love-Hate Relationship

I recently received one of those emails from a popular language-learning company promising that I could painlessly master a foreign language in just 10 days. I watched the attached video and saw that there would be no annoying grammar, no tiresome lists of vocabulary to remember, in fact no effort whatsoever. It would just magically happen. All I had to do was choose my language, give my credit card number and get started.

The video prompted some thoughts about our American desire for instant gratification and our collective naiveté. Presumably, these ads work, otherwise the various companies would not promote them so persistently. And also I wondered, what was so magical about 10 days? Why not eight or 14?

Perhaps eight was too short even for Americans accustomed to instant wonders and 14 implied too much effort would be required. I assume the number 10 was tested in focus groups and produced the most favorable response.

Of course, language courses are much like dieting plans. People buy them, hoping for miracles but not truly expecting them. Perhaps they can do some good, people think. At worst, they won't do any harm.

It so happens that I once did buy a course from one of the major companies -- in basic Romanian. This was six years ago, before I was due to spend nine months teaching journalism in Bucharest. I received five 90 minute CDs which my wife and I religiously went through several times.

I am not going to totally dismiss the results. We did learn a few basic phrases which, because of the constant repetition, have stuck in my mind.

"Where is Boulevard Eminescu? Is it over there? No, it is here."
"Would you like to eat something? No I would like to drink something."

We supplemented the course with a couple of dozen hours with a tutor and then with many hours working our way through a much more sophisticated course which did include boring grammar and horrid, horrid vocab. And then we arrived in Bucharest where we were greeted with the unintelligible babble of Romanians actually speaking their language. Our efforts were not totally useless. We could take a taxi, order a restaurant meal, buy vegetables in the market, pay the phone bill -- but that was about it.

Of course, a language is the gateway to an entire culture. One could scarcely say one was truly fluent in English without a working knowledge of sources as diffuse as Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Lucille Ball, John F. Kennedy, Jane Austen and Monty Python. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.This is a truth universally unacknowledged by the purveyors of instant fluency. Bereft of life, they may rest in peace.

As one who grew up in Britain, coming to the United States involved learning a whole range of new cultural references before I became semi-fluent in American. I knew what a sticky wicket and a googly were but my grasp of baseball was strictly bush league. My idea of a Hail Mary was based in my slight knowledge of Catholic theology. I was very familiar with Nobby Stiles (he played on England's victorious 1966 World Cup team in football -- that is to say, soccer) but the significance of Jackie Robinson escaped me. I had watched Yogi Bear comics on TV as a kid -- but I had no idea there was a real live person called Yogi Berra or that he was famous for his quips.

An old and bad joke goes as follows: "A person who speaks two languages can said to be bilingual and one who speaks three is trilingual -- but what do you call a person who only speaks one language? Answer: an American."

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama gave some truth to that statement. "I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing!" he said at a town hall meeting in Dayton, Ohio.

Since 1997, the percentage of elementary and middle schools that offer foreign language courses has fallen significantly, from 31 percent to 25 percent at the elementary level and from 75 percent to 58 percent at the middle school level, according to a nationwide survey of public and private schools conducted in 2008 by the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.

The Census Bureau reported in 2007 that just under 20 percent of Americans, mostly immigrants and the children of immigrants, speak a language other than English.

In comparison, in the European Union, which is composed of 27 different countries and 23 official languages, 56 percent of Europeans speak a language other than their mother tongue, and 28 percent speak two foreign languages, according to a 2006 European Commission survey.

When I was a foreign correspondent for Reuters New Service in Jerusalem and later in Stockholm, it was quite normal for major American news organizations to send correspondents to cover those countries with no knowledge of the languages spoken in them. Of course, one could argue that most of the intelligentsia in both Israel and Sweden and many of the regular folk you meet on the street speak good English. But as a reporter, you also need to know what they are saying to each other, what they are hearing on the radio and watching on TV. You have to hear the country talking to itself. When they talk to you in English, it's just not the same.

Sorry Pimsleur. Sorry Rosetta Stone and all the others. The bad news is that it takes hard work and concerted effort for adults to learn a foreign language. The good news is that it's not impossible and it's so rewarding when you succeed.