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How America Can Get Her Bilingual Groove Back

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Is it time to be a bilingual nation? Let's continue the conversation...

I recently met with Levenger store staff members in Tysons Corner, Virginia, which is just inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway. After talking shop, I asked them to tell me what languages, besides English, they spoke. Here are their names and answers:

Steve with Tysons Corner staff

Adnan Abdillahi: Somalian
Ricardo Corbet: Spanish and a little Italian
Christina Nemr: Arabic and French
Gerri Pineda: Tagalog
Amish Singh: Hindi
Erni (Ita) Tazkiah: Indonesian
Minh Thai: Vietnamese and a little French
Nova Wakkary: Indonesian

(Chris Gordy, our store manager, is the only monolingual member of the group but is remedying that: he's studying Spanish to learn his wife's first language.)

By this list, you might conclude that we're running a language school, but we have no language requirement on our employment applications except English. Our staff members just happen to represent the international community found in our nation's capital, and it's a good thing they do. They tell me that they frequently call on their other languages when helping our customers.

Our employees are indicative of changes across the United States. According to the U.S. Census, there is a rising tide of languages used in our nation.

Playing catch-up with most of the world

About 35 million U.S. residents now speak Spanish at home, which translates to 12 percent of the population. When the U.S. Census was conducted in 1990, French and German were the next two most popular languages spoken at home. They still are heard in many American households, but another, very different language has moved into the number 2 slot: Chinese.

It's the sheer number of different languages spoken in the U.S. that is truly impressive. For a quick illustration, take a moment to click to the U.S .Census homepage and pull down "Select a language." You'll find Navajo, Swahili, Amharic, Llocano, Dinka and Dari among your choices.

There is no indication that any of this increase in other language usage is associated with any decrease in the use of English. It's just that we are slowly becoming more bilingual than in the past. That's a good trend. The trouble is, we're far behind the rest of the world.

Bilingual: Life and RealityAccording to François Grosjean, the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, most of the world's population is bilingual.

While quantifying bilingualism is tricky, Grosjean reports these rough measures:

Europe: 56%
Great Britain: 38%
Canada: 35%
United States: 17%

The bilingual advantage

Grosjean explains that linguists have long sought to determine whether there is any advantage in learning, thinking or excelling to be had by monolinguals -- the idea that it might help if you have to worry only about one language. The result of decades of research is that no advantages to monolingualism are discernible. To the contrary: Grosjean reports that the world over, bilingual people excel. The fact that people tend to look up to those who can converse in more than one language is justified.

We almost expect today's world-class performers, such as the tenor Placido Domingo and the tennis player Roger Federer, to speak multiple languages. And we admire Americans like Greg Mortensen, who learned Arabic to help him build schools for girls in some of the least hospitable places on earth.

History is full of bilingual luminaries, including Jesus Christ.

Grosjean writes that Christ may have spoken three or four languages. "His mother tongue was Aramaic; he then learned Hebrew in his rabbinical training and he may also have known Greek and Latin, both of which were spoken in Palestine at the time."

Turning back to my microcosm at Levenger, I can report that in our headquarters in Delray Beach, we're fortunate to have three talented computer programmers or developers -- all, as it turns out, bilingual Asian women. Their children also excel. One has a daughter who graduated from MIT and is in medical school at Columbia. Another has a daughter finishing her freshman year at MIT and is also a concert pianist. (She was valedictorian at our local high school.) Need I mention that these daughters speak Mandarin?

As part of my own untalented but stubborn attempt to learn Spanish, I watch almost exclusively Spanish television. Telemundo and Univison gave round-the-clock coverage to the earthquake in Chile, showing videos and interviews days after the English mainstream networks had moved on.

With the Internet, speakers of nearly any of the world's languages can follow events in places outside our borders with an understanding and concern enhanced by their knowledge of the language.

We need to value our own bilinguals and emulate them so that we become better Americans. The challenge is that we are still so heavily monolingual. Grosjean writes, "...the more monolingual a group or country is, the more difficult it is for the society to understand that bilinguals are a real asset to a nation in terms of what they can bring to cross-cultural communication and understanding."

How America lost its mother tongues

And yet, America was born speaking many languages. With early immigrants speaking Dutch, German, French, English and Italian among many other languages, mixing rather un-harmoniously with Native Americans and their languages, something needed to be done if there was to be any hope of becoming more than a Babel of colonies.

Benjamin Franklin, who spoke five or six languages, at one point thought America might well standardize on German, which predominated in his native Pennsylvania. Thomas Jefferson could have written our Declaration of Independence in French as well as the English he chose (certainly better for King George to understand).

Forging allegiance to its own form of English became a matter of patriotism for the brash young country that pronounced it was no longer English but American. And no founding father felt this necessity more keenly than a young man who left Yale to fight in the revolution, and after victory, had the good fortune of having George Washington as a mentor. The young man was passionate about helping his young country go its own way with language and quit using the hated British spellers, with their examples taken from British countryside. The young man's name was Noah Webster.

The Life and Times of Noah Webster, an American PatriotTo hear the cacophony of languages in revolutionary America, read The Life and Times of Noah Webster, an American Patriot by Harlow Giles Unger. The man whose name is synonymous with "dictionary" first made his mark with his tiny speller, and through his efforts in copyright law and education reform, created the bedrock of the English we speak today. Webster's dictionaries were taken up by American public schools and libraries. Those public libraries became the people's universities, where countless adults from Eastern Europe and China labored to learn the English their kids were absorbing in their classrooms and on playgrounds.

My guess is that Webster would be pleased if he could see -- and hear -- his legacy. His efforts to forge an American English succeeded in uniting a chaotic chorus into the famed melting pot for two hundred years.

But what was so right for our first two hundred years isn't necessarily right for our next era.

How America can become the most bilingual nation

The first step is to recognize that it's in our economic, cultural and political interests to become as bilingual as the world average of 51 percent, and then to go beyond the world average. Moreover, Americans should become the most diverse ilk of bilinguals on the planet -- showing off the diversity that has made our country great.

It strengthened America to be a melting pot, with everyone enthusiastically embracing the English of their adopted country and forcing it on their children. Now it's time to move to a new paradigm. Now that America English won the World Cup of Languages, it's time to be an enlightened victor, one like Lincoln and Churchill: benevolent in peace.

It's time to invite with open arms all the languages of the world back into America and celebrate them while learning them. In doing so we will be seizing our natural advantage of having such diversity in our immigrant population.

Only good will come of this new attitude.

Those teaching other languages to native English speakers will strengthen their own English, while native speakers will gain new appreciation for the difficult language we take for granted.

A citizenry that can all speak English well and then another language, too -- that is the requirement of many American colleges and universities and there is evidence that the rest of the country is coming around.

The New York Times reported that the Justice Department has begun reviewing how the New York Police Department interacts with New Yorkers who do not speak English well. Police Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne responded this way: "...we have the largest number of foreign-language speakers of any police department in the country, and perhaps the world, but certainly in the diversity of languages and the pure number of foreign-language speakers."

In one generation

It will take leadership beyond enlightened police departments to make American bilingualism a reality.

President Obama should set a simple but profound goal for our nation, as Kennedy did for landing on the moon. It should be the kind of long-term goal that extends beyond any one president: that a majority of Americans be bilingual in one generation from today. That is, by the year 2035, 51 percent of our population should be bilingual, which would make our nation one with the bilingual world.

Moreover, American bilingualism should be of a unique stature in its diversity. English will remain our official language, but Americans should be given every opportunity and every encouragement to read, write and speak one other language as well -- any of the world's languages.

American bilingualism should be representative of our heritage as the nation of immigrants and a shining example of what we can be when we are at our best.

We know it's right to send our students abroad for a year and we know it's good to bring international students to America. Why shouldn't this be even more strongly encouraged so that it becomes as universal as driver licenses? Is there some better way to invest our wealth? And why shouldn't adults share in the adventure and fun? (Even a college dad like me.)

Technology has already had a transformative effect and will play a growing role. America should strive to lead in that arena. We have the advantage of having Microsoft, Google and Apple in the U.S. to continue to lead the way, but the competition is obviously global. Check out the cool programs the BBC offers for free. What a fine arena for America to compete in with all her might.

A bilingual America will be better able to read the world, to hear the world and to speak to the world.

Our founding fathers would be proud of us for our success with English. And I think they would be proud of us for recognizing that it is time to move ahead to the next declaration of unity.

Do you agree? I'd love to hear your comments -- in any language.