Eradicating Monolingualism

This is a special guest post from my sister, Ashley.  She rarely writes about Costa Rica, but this topic touches a wish that is prominent in Costa Rica (and one that I can totally relate to too).


The first time I heard the word I thought it was some kind of disease,

although this probably had to do with the way it was pronounced to me. Europeans, in

particular, tend to let it escape from the back of their throats in that same gently

horrified tone that one uses to talk about leprosy or syphilis. Monolingualism! they

gasp, The poor thing will have to be sent to the nun’s convent. Or Monolingualism?! You

should really get that checked out.

In the Basque Country of Spain, where I live, monolingualism was never even a

tangible threat. One could argue that it had its heyday during the rule of Spain’s

dictator, Francisco Franco, but Spain’s regional languages never really went away,

they just moved to being spoken behind closed doors. Nowadays, many parts of Spain

are trilingual – a regional language (such as Basque), Spanish, and English being the

languages of instruction in school. Multilingualism is the norm for many schools

across Europe and while it’s not always easy to find a utopia balance, most agree that

it is certainly better than a monolingual upbringing.

As a foreign language teacher, I often hear: “I wish we didn’t have to learn so much

languages,” (so much instead of so many, because I’m direct quoting here), but I’ve

never heard anyone say that they wished they only knew one. Furthermore, my

students frequently enjoy complaining about monolinguals and Americans above all.

While not all of us Americans suffer from this troubling malady, enough of us do that it

has become our established international stereotype. In reality, we aren’t even the

only country guilty of being monolingual, but as I’ve been schooled in more than one

classroom discussion, we just happen to be the most annoying. Not only are most

Americans blissfully monolingual, but we also appear to have the nerve to obligate the

rest of the world to learn our language if they want to secure any longstanding

economic opportunities.

I frequently remind my determined, but often tired English learners that most

Americans are not personally hell-bent on ruining others’ lives with their language.

Myself, as their teacher, being the exception. The rest of us are too busy eating fast

food and buying firearms. (They laugh.) But in reality, our lingua franca has more to

do with luck and politics than personal vendettas. Before, it was French, now it’s

English, and our children will probably be learning Chinese. Would anyone like to try

their hand at Chinese? I ask them. Silence.

However, even though I owe the majority of my international career success to the

fact that English is the current lingua franca, I would argue that this is both a blessing

and a curse. Monolingualism might not be a disease, but it is a severe handicap and we

should be working hard to eradicate it from our country. Because unless we require

all of our citizens to go about the monumental task of acquiring another language, we

will never fully understand the insurmountable effort that our counterparts are

making, year after year, to communicate with us. And that deeper understanding and

appreciation for this effort is fundamental to our survival and respectability in a

global society. Language learning must work both ways.

The good news is, we are getting better. On one of my annual visits home to Verona, I

was delighted to see that my former elementary school had taken steps to post

signage in both English and Spanish and that bilingual programs are very much alive

in the school district. However, there is still a lot of work to be done in actively

encouraging a multilingual ideal outside of the school environment.

It isn’t enough to take a crash course on a foreign language in university or show off

your Spanish food vocabulary at a Mexican restaurant. Nor can we claim to be a

multilingual nation just because “many languages are spoken”, when those languages

are predominantly used only by those who consider it to be their native tongue.

Tolerating foreign languages is simply not the same as actively speaking one in your

daily life.

Well beyond just another school subject, the ability to speak a foreign language is

perhaps the most powerful resource available to us. It teaches us humility, because

when you are suddenly stripped of a skill that you’ve had nearly since birth and

handed a blank slate, you must swallow a lot of pride. It pushes our patience, because

fluency is a lifelong journey. It doesn’t happen overnight and you don’t “learn a

language” and then know it forever; you have to maintain it. It even helps our

creativity to flourish, because we’re forced to find new ways to convey our message.

Most importantly, a multilingual society builds solidarity between cultures. Taking the

time to learn a foreign language is perhaps the most authentic gesture of goodwill. It

says, quite simply: “I care about you and where you come from.” It’s the perfect design

for mutual respect that I experience every time I rattle something off in Spanish and

receive the reaction: “Wow, where did you learn your Spanish?” and I respond, “Right

here. From you. Because I wanted to learn and you took the time to teach me.”

-Ashley writes about travel with her husband on her own blog, but obviously, could write about anything, including Costa Rica sometimes.



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