It makes every last member of the Académie Française fly into a panic, but the truth, hélas, is that English, not French, is today’s universal language. Tongue of technology, patois of the 20th and 21st centuries, more dominant than any other language in history, English is omnipresent in the mouths and minds of much of humankind.
You’d think that would put native Anglophones at a huge advantage. But I’m here to tell you that it does not.
The 5 Dangers of “Speak English Only”
It seems we native speakers of English are literally wired for linguistic ease. If, like me, your mother tongue is English, your brain hasn’t been given the same rigorous daily workout since birth as, say, your Finnish or Somali friends’ brains. According to studies by the National Academy of Sciences, their languages, with their complex grammatical structure and hyper-nuanced pronunciation, require more brain space and agility, faster recall, and hotter neurotransmitting fireworks than English requires from our brain.
Which clunkiness never bothered us, right? That is, until now. Or until we try to acquire fluency in another language. That’s when we find our native machinery more like the leftover remnants of a dated Brio train track set than like the sprawling TGV trackbed crosscutting France. And it seems that trackbed is what we need to get really rolling in another language.
We stride right into the yak hide-curing yurt in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and, without as much as a greeting, ask the woman in our broad Midwestern drawl, “So, can you wrap up this one to go?”
Or we catch ourselves getting riled at the man (the one in Azerbaijan, or the one in Auxerre), or the woman (in Bangkok or Bayonne) for not being able to give us traffic directions in English.
The danger of our personal dominant language being the world’s dominant language has to do with expectations. We can wrongly expect everyone else we will ever encounter is able to accommodate us linguistically. Their job is to meet our norm, not the reverse.
When we catch that in ourselves, do we blame the English language itself for being easy and essentially everywhere?
Or do we accept the hard truth that, frankly, we Anglophones have had it easy for the last few generations? It could be that we’ve become language snobs. We may have traveled the world over, but no matter where we’ve gone, we’ve gotten by in English.
Well, we might have gotten by, that’s true. But have we gotten in?
It’s easy to skim the surface of anything, including a country. Touristing, (the Sparks Notes version of reading a culture), while fabulous in its own right, doesn’t cost much from us emotionally and psychologically. And it certainly doesn’t take the blood and sweat investment of learning the local language.
It’s integration that costs, and sometimes it costs dearly. I’ve seen evidence of this since I was a preteen and had my first ex-Anglophone experience in Salzburg, Austria. We’d moved there as a family while my father, a music professor, and my mother, an operatic soprano, oversaw a university’s foreign exchange group focusing on German language, history, and music. Even at that young age, I saw how tough it was for a gaggle of boisterous, self-confident American students to give up our ease, expectations, and enclave – how hard it was to escape our very selves, essentially – in order to enter into another culture, another way of being.
Over the decades since, my husband and I have moved with our own family 20 times, living between nine countries and their six languages. We’ve noted that with the expansion of our digital universe it has become many times more challenging for us native Anglophones to do the painful work of giving up our linguistic ease for cultural integration, to shed certain anglo-centric expectations, and to escape our enclave. That anglo-enclave, after all, isn’t just a neighborhood anymore, but also the Internet, with its nearly 880 million English-speaking users.
The Internet is a cosmic door, but it opens into an Anglophone world. While speaking English as a second language opens that door and others, expanding the world for many people, speaking English as our only language tends to close doors, reducing our world. Indeed, it can trap us to where expansion (see #4) and empathy (see #5) are impossible.
It is not a far jump from monolingualism to monoscopism (seeing things only through one immovable lens). From there, it’s only a baby step to ethnocentricism, xenophobia, and racism.
What might it mean, then, if only one in four Americans is multilingual, and among those who are, most are from immigrant families? Or that among the British, 62% speak only English? Or that in Australia, another culturally diverse Anglophone island, only 20% report speaking anything beyond English. At the same time, in central Europe, 56% of the population is multilingual. And China itself has as many English learners as there are English speakers in the entire world.
It might mean, among other things, that political leaders, like those seeking to create an enemy in order to build cohesion in followers and gain votes, might exploit the idea of monolingualism to their advantage, making “foreign” language suspect, even unpatriotic. For example, Donald Trump has said many times that, “We’re a nation that speaks English. I think that … we should be speaking English. Only English.”
Which is not a danger — it is endangered — if numbers one through four describe us.
Language is a drug — a mood-altering, vision-inducing, mind-expanding remedy for poor vision and pinched minds. Slip enough syllables of any second language under your tongue and wait for the magic. You might very well begin to see, hear, and feel differently. You might shed what you thought were justified fears about other cultures and peoples. You might learn you were wrong all along or, if not wrong outright, at least not as right as you had thought you were. You might also find comfort, kinship, beauty, and magnificence in the most unlikely places. In the most radical scenario, you might not even miss your mother tongue all that much. Which won’t ever hurt Anglophonia, and might help heal the world.