Contrary to popular belief, the above-mentioned phrase is decidedly not a compliment, regardless of the intentions of the speaker. These words can be said in English, in German, or with any variety of well-meaning tones of voice. The phrase remains the worst sort of backhanded compliment: an unintentional one.
The unsaid statement behind the phrase is, "I'm surprised you can speak a foreign language well, because most Americans can't." My immediate reaction is to refute such a claim: What the hell does my Passport have to do with my knowledge of German? Since when does citizenship determine foreign language proficiency? Unfortunately, when my righteous anger died down, I came to a terrible realization. They might be right.
My Massachusetts public education first exposed me to foreign languages in the 7th Grade, when I was 13 years old. We had a trimester of French, Spanish, and German, giving each of us a taste of the language so we could better decide which introductory language course to take in the 8th Grade. In most European countries, students start learning a foreign language when they are eight years old. For most U.S. eight-year-olds, learning a foreign language is not even an option. Only 24% of public elementary schools in the United States offer foreign language courses, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics. Among those schools that do offer foreign language instruction, 79% focus on introductory exposure rather than overall proficiency.
As someone who values foreign language education, I have a huge problem with these figures. But am I just biased on the issue? Europeans come into contact with foreign languages much more often than U.S. citizens, simply by living in a part of the world where so many countries with different cultures, languages, and dialects of language coexist. Of course someone from Luxembourg is going to need to speak multiple languages; Luxembourg has three official languages and borders Belgium, France, and Germany. And isn't English a so-called "world language" anyway? To achieve international success in either business or science, a strong grasp of the English language is crucial. At least, that's what my U.S. upbringing has led me to believe.
I cannot disprove the usefulness of English as a first language; on the contrary, I can only confirm from various traveling experiences that my knowledge of the English language allowed me to communicate when I otherwise could not. And yes, from my hometown in Massachusetts the nearest non-English speaking country is Canada, in the Quebec province, and that's quite a trip. So why should U.S. citizens bother to learn a foreign language when "everybody speaks English anyway," when opportunities to use foreign language skills are few and far between?
Studies have shown that learning a second language benefits students in other academic subjects. Students in the U.S. who study a foreign language statistically perform better on standardized tests than those who do not in core areas such as math, reading, and English language literacy. Even problem solving skills are positively affected. If enhanced academic performance is not reason enough, let's look at the "global dominance" of the English language. In terms of global population, the percentage of native English speakers is on the decline. With a worldwide decrease in native English speakers, it is only natural that other languages, like Mandarin Chinese, will grow in proportion to their native-speaking populations. While I'm not suggesting we all begin learning Mandarin, I am suggesting that the U.S. needs to re-assess its values in education. We cannot simply assume English is the "world language," or that English will indefinitely remain vital in global discourse.
Personally, learning the German language has shaped and enriched the person I am today. Since moving to Dresden, Germany I have met so many wonderful, patient people not only willing, but excited to help me learn German. Even after all the embarrassing mistakes, misunderstandings, and unintentional backhanded compliments, at the end of each day I've learned something, and it's not always language-related. Learning a foreign language has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, a learning experience from which all people, regardless of citizenship, can benefit.