Since I’ve come to Japan and began speaking to various non-native English speakers, I’ve thought a lot about the status of English in the linguistic food chain. I think a lot of English speakers, especially in America, consider English to be an international language. Often considered a lingua franca in the modern linguistic climate, the learning of English is compulsory in many schools and nations across the globe, leading many to believe, as English speakers, they can engage with the rest of the world freely without consequence without ever having to learn another language.
On the other hand, there’s a school of thought surrounding language learning that presumes that if one never leaves America (which, legally, has no official language on the federal level*), they will never have to learn another language because there’s no need.
Although both of those are true to an extent, beyond that extent they create complications in interaction and systematic redundancy in education. Although it’s true that many countries have English education in school, this doesn’t mean the people of their country speak English. Since I’ve come to Japan (in which English Education is compulsory from the 5th grade) I’ve met a range of people with varying levels of English- some whose English could pass for native (and probably is better than mine) and some whose compulsory education never took them further than “Hello” and “Good bye”. Talking to different people in Akita International University- a school which teaches primarily in English- there’s little difficulty in English communication. However, as soon as one leaves the school’s premises, the difference in linguistic level between students who study English as a primary subject necessary for the entirety of their Education and people who studied English in from middle to high school compulsively becomes apparent.
As many Americans who took compulsive language courses in High school know, the results of language education are dependant on a lot more than the presence of classes. There are a variety of linguistic factors that tie into what one learns from their class, which means that while one might come out of compulsory education with a great grasp on a language, someone else might come out with almost no ability to use it despite passing grades. I personally (and very regrettably) came out of high school with zero ability to speak the language I learned compulsively, and can attest to that.
In America, this is often ignored, largely because of, I believe, the perception that languages other than English aren’t necessary in the day to day context. However, problems exist because of the lack of emphasis on its necessity. Because Americans have such a high tendency to not know other languages, we can be perceived as ignorant on a global scale. I brought up the fact that the majority of Americans only speak one language to a European friend of mine, and they didn’t believe me until i pulled up statistics; it seems incompetent on an unbelievable scale to people who grow up learning one language, and can make people who speak only one language feel incompetent in multilingual environments. On top of that, the normalization of of monolingualism is self propagating. If people only speak one language, they can’t help other people learn other languages, and often propagate their own reasons for not learning second languages.
Since coming to Japan, my belief that people should emphasize and strengthen language learning, especially in America and the American school system, has become much stronger. Seeing how well people can interact globably through the use of many languages, and frequently seeing the many pragmatic issues associated with monolingualism in a multilingual environment, the advantages are clear and ever present. Although I can’t propose revisions to the system in place, I’d like to draw attention to the issues that people may not be aware of outside of their own linguistic bubbles, and to the beauty of the linguistic situation that exists in Akita, and everywhere people gather and communicate in a variety of languages.