What do you call someone who speaks several languages? Multilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.
The old joke makes me cringe every time, but it reflects the global reputation the United States has earned as a largely monolingual nation.
But just how bad is it? It’s hard tell. A fundamental misinterpretation of the data could suggest that the United States isn’t nearly as monolingual as it is perceived.
Journalist Michael Erard questioned the conventional wisdom in a recent essay for the New York Times. For the past three decades, he wrote, the U.S. census has asked citizens three questions when it comes to their language use: “Does this person speak a language other than English at home? What is this language? How well does this person speak English?”
According to the latest results, just less than 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home, a figure that is often interpreted as representing our bilingual population.
But take another look at those questions. If speaking a language at home is the only criterion for knowing a language, then surely most of us would fail. Even I would, because when my father speaks to me in his native Spanish, I respond in English.
The census ignores those of us who pick up another language at work, in class, while studying abroad or through Rosetta Stone.
As Erard writes, a more comprehensive question would be the one the European Commission asked in 2006: Can you have a conversation in a language besides your mother tongue? (It turns out 56 percent of Europeans can.) Until we get these statistics, it’s impossible to draw an accurate picture of our multilingual nation.
But some misleading data doesn’t quite get monolingual Americans off the hook. As numerous studies have shown, the benefits of being bilingual go beyond simply being able to communicate in another tongue.
For one, bilingual people tend to have a better awareness of the function and structure of language, a concept known as metalinguistic awareness.