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Why Do Many Americans Speak Only English?

11 January 2011
Portrait of Dr. David L. Sigsbee (Courtesy of David L. Sigsbee)

Dr. David L. Sigsbee explains how many factors, such as the worldwide spread of English, have affected Americans’ foreign language acquisition.

By Dr. David L. Sigsbee

This essay is excerpted from the Living Book You Asked.

U.S. Geography and the Need to Learn a Foreign Language

The United States is spread out over a huge land mass, and for most of its citizens there is no need to speak a language in addition to English in order to communicate with people who live nearby. The United States shares a 5,525-mile border with Canada, where the majority of citizens speak English.

The situation is somewhat different in a few large cities and in parts of the American Southwest, where a person may hear both English and other languages, especially Spanish, spoken side by side. However, in most of the United States, a person is not likely to hear a language other than English spoken as part of his or her everyday life. Furthermore, while the United States does not have an official language, for practical purposes English has been the language that virtually all residents speak and the one that immigrants are expected to master. From time to time movements arise to change the U.S. Constitution and to make English the country’s official language since many Americans believe that national unity requires a national language. U.S. identity, unlike that of other countries, is not rooted in ethnicity or race. Many Americans, therefore, see English as a national unifying bond or identity. Other Americans, however, oppose this change, believing that we should honor language differences and that U.S. linguistic diversity is itself a unifying national identity.

English Is Spoken in Many Countries and Professions

Another reason many Americans do not feel a need to learn other languages is that English has become a world language and a language used in international trade and many professions. For example, Americans traveling abroad discover that they can easily find English speakers in many of the places that they visit. In part the spread of English has occurred because of an unusual political situation, that is, two successive world powers, Great Britain and the United States, introduced their native language — English — along with the expansion of their influence in many parts of the world.

English has also spread because it has become the common language of many professions and areas of activity. For example, English is the language of commercial airline pilots and of medical doctors and is also used widely in the sciences and engineering. In some countries, where the use of regional languages can exacerbate ethnic tensions, English has become a politically neutral language in which people can communicate.

In recent decades, English has been used in computer science and computer operating systems because those who developed computer technology have been, for the most part, English speakers. English speakers were instrumental in the development first of BITNET and then of e-mail and the World Wide Web. One outcome of this is that business people who want to compete globally use English on the Web or provide an English translation. All of the above factors, as well as others not considered here, lead many Americans to think that there is no need for them to speak and write in another language.

Foreign Language Learning in the United States

It is not surprising then that many people outside the United States think that all Americans do not learn foreign languages. In fact, most American students are introduced to a foreign language, some as early as elementary school. Despite this, the instruction is usually not continuous, the curriculum may not be well designed and the standards for instruction vary from place to place. The primary reason for this is that the U.S. Constitution leaves the education of citizens to the individual states. The U.S. federal government does encourage certain educational emphases and programs, but it neither mandates instruction in a given subject nor sets a national goal such as the “native language-plus-two” goal of the European Union.

Furthermore, when individual communities across the country do establish requirements for their elementary and high schools, they follow their own individualized standards. As a result, there is a wide variation in foreign language instruction across the country. The typical experience of American students is a one- or two-year introduction to a language at the elementary school level followed several years later by one or two years of high school language study, although some high schools offer more advanced study for those who want it. At the college and university level, foreign language study is required for some degrees (and extensive instruction in foreign languages is available to students who wish to achieve fluency and proficiency). The overall outcome, however, is that instruction in foreign languages is a limited and disjointed experience that does not bring most students to a level of fluency in another language.

U.S. Immigrants and English

Immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship must demonstrate a level of fluency in English. Most commonly they do this as part of their naturalization eligibility interview with an officer of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This test follows a clear set of guidelines and involves speaking in response to questions and reading and writing English. However, for most, learning English is already a desirable goal since English language proficiency makes it easier to achieve economic success and to participate in community and civic life. While it is possible to live in cultural enclaves in the United States where a language other than English predominates, effective use of English remains necessary for long-term well-being and success.

Many immigrants feel some degree of tension about which languages to teach and speak with their children. They naturally want their children to know and understand their own native language, but they also realize that for their children to succeed in the United States, especially to earn a living, good English skills are required. Furthermore, the research of sociologist Min Zhou shows that most children of immigrants want to be as much like their American peers as possible, so they learn English well in order not to stand out as different. As a result, immigrant children tend to move away from their parents’ native language and acquire a strong identification with English. For the most part, by the third generation, the descendants of immigrants show little interest in knowing or communicating in their grandparents’ native language.

Language in the United States

There are many factors that influence foreign language acquisition in the United States. While many Americans learn a foreign language either at home or in school, due to the United States’ vast land mass, the worldwide spread of English and the somewhat limited reach of public school language instruction, the majority of Americans speak only English.

David L. Sigsbee is a retired professor of foreign languages and literatures at the University of Memphis.

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(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)