Young man and Coca-Cola machine, 1959. By Bruce Davidson

The Gilded Tongue

Like the sons and daughters of landed gentry, we native speakers of English have been born into a world of privilege that we have done nothing to deserve. We are linguistically pampered and catered to wherever we go and whatever we do, whether it’s booking a train to Florence or ordering dinner in Buenos Aires or making small talk with clients in Tokyo.

We don’t need to work very hard at communicating because others will make the effort for us. So accustomed we are to this Gilded Age of linguistic privilege that we may not really see this effort as anything extraordinary, if we see it at all. Hopefully we are no longer tempted to think that our interlocutors are grateful for the chance that we’ve given them to “practice” their English, an amusing proposition for anyone who’s lived in Europe for any length of time. (The EU Eurobarometer 2012 report on “Europeans and their Language” reveals that almost half of EU citizens who are competent in a foreign language—and this is English in most cases—already use the language often or every day.)

While it’s not exactly the equivalent of schlepping our bags to the station, our non-native interlocutors render us a service when they speak to us in our language. It comes at a cost, even for those who speak it fluently. If you’ve ever groped for a word or case ending in another language, you will have a sense of this effort.  A cost of doing business or science or trade in a global economy, we might say, and though we may be its unwitting beneficiaries there are considerable economic and social benefits as well for the non-native speaker of English, more than enough to offset the cost.

Fair enough. But it is remarkable how easily the (mistaken) assumption that nearly everyone speaks English—and if not, there’s someone to be found in the village who does—becomes the expectation that everyone should.

We Americans are rather bad at learning foreign languages. As economist Bryce Caplan notes, data from the General Social Survey reveal that only 2.5% of Americans claim to have learned a foreign language in school well enough to speak it “well” or “very well”. Of course, more Americans do speak a second language well enough to carry on a conversation. Both the GSS and Gallup reach the same number, about 25% of the population, but this number includes a large chunk of the 20% of persons living in the US who the US Census informs us speak a language other than English at home, mostly Spanish.  The majority of these speakers are likely to be first- or early-generation Americans, an assumption supported by the fact that only half of the respondents who state they speak Spanish at home also say that they are able to speak English very well.

There are reasons for our monolingualism. We don’t start learning languages early enough and don’t study them long enough once we do start. Our teachers are not always adequately trained in foreign-language teaching methodology. We lack the extensive exposure to the target language that many of those learning English have to ours. (Watching subtitled TV series is a surprising boon to developing listening skills in the target language).

Caplan offers another reason. He says we have no incentive to learn a foreign language.

In a post for the libertarian website Library of Economics and Liberty entitled “The Numbers Speak: Foreign Language Requirements Are a Waste of Time and Money”, he argues that there is no compelling economic or social benefit for Americans to acquire competency in another language.

“We don’t learn foreign languages because foreign languages rarely help us get good jobs, meet interesting people, and enjoy culture.”  We already can do that, he says, because we have enough jobs in the States that don’t require foreign language competency, and there’s enough cultural diversity within the country already. “If Americans do decide to sample other pools [of culture], we can literally travel the world without needing to learn a word of another language.”

Albert Saiz, an economist at MIT, has even quantified this lack of incentive. His research on the return of investment in foreign-language learning was recently profiled in a recent Freakonomics podcast called Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth it (a question that could only be posed in America, I think). Saiz has calculated that Americans who learn a foreign language earn a bonus of only 2%, less for Spanish, slightly more for German. As The Economist pointed out in an column shortly after the release of the podcast, this is not really peanuts. Thanks to compound interest, if you bank the annual bonus, you can cash in your rewards for a bonanza of $64,000 at the end of a 40-year period or $128,000 if your language is German. But I doubt that even this nest-egg would be enough of an incentive. Survey data suggest that most Americans believe that speaking a second language is a good thing to have but far from necessary.

I’m alarmed at the cultural insularity that lies at the core of Caplan’s argument “we have it all here”, just as I am uncomfortable with the reduction of learning to equations of economic utility. I think there are compelling non-material reasons for learning a foreign language. Even if we do not become proficient in the language we will have gained access to a culture in a way that was not possible before, an ability not so different from imagining living in a house that is only half-finished.  It’s also a means to acquiring a greater awareness of the workings of one’s own. And for us who are native speakers of the world’s lingua franca, it is an exercise in humility, an acknowledgement that we share this world and its resources and that our language—and by extension, our culture—is but one of many, with no inherent claim of superiority simply because it is ours. It is not the only antidote to American exceptionalism but it is a potent one.

But most of all speaking another language enables us to think in a different way, which is reason enough to learn it.

Going out for lunch in Koreatown or getting together at your daughter’s softball match with second-generation immigrants whose kids are also on the team is not really the same thing. Once when I was back in the States for a visit, my brother took me to a just game like that. I was astounded not by the diversity of the young Hispanic- and Asian- and African-American parents on the sidelines cheering their kids on, but by their sameness.

If I have inherited a linguistically easy life, my friend Yannos is one of the dispossessed. He has never learned English, though it’s not for a lack of trying. He has taken classes and worked through Teach Yourself books and CDs, all to no avail. He complains that the sounds of the language feel too alien. “The words taste like metal in my mouth,” he says. “I think I’m just not made for English.”

If he needs to communicate with a foreigner, he speaks a creole of his own making, small bits of Italian and French strung together like shells and beads on a string and held in place not by syntax but by affability and good will. But his stock of words is too limited for anything more than the exchange of pleasantries. Like the great majority of Americans, Yannos is essentially monolingual, except that very few people in the global village speak his native tongue.

Which is why I’m here today on the building site. Yannos has found a buyer for a half-finished house he has built on this island in the Western Cyclades. The buyer is a French couple, Emile and Simone, and he needs an interpreter. I tell him my French isn’t very good. He says, no problem. Emile speaks English, too.

Yannos’ talent as an architect speaks for itself, as Emile and his wife know. They stayed in one of his other houses, and were enchanted by his austere line and respect for the island’s vernacular architecture. They noticed his attention to detail and his uncanny sense of the site’s natural advantages.

But a house is more than form and view, and Emile and Simone have come to talk about their house, the one they want to buy. About the kitchen, which they think is a bit too small, and the guest bedroom, which is way too small, and the gardens that will be planted and the material for the windows and dozens of other questions. Many of these questions will be decided on much later, but that’s not the point. They are trying to imagine themselves living in this space, which is now just two blocks of concrete and brick on a plot of rocky, bramble-covered land.

“Ma perchè ? C’est pas petit,” Yannos says to Emile as they survey the guest bedroom. “È seulement pour dormir.” He turns to me and says in Greek. “Why buy a summer house on a Greek island if you’re going to spend time in your bedroom. What else do you in bed but sleep and fuck?”

I tell him the French live in the bedroom more than we do. I don’t remember how I came to know this.

Emile asks how far the garden will extend before it hits the first retaining wall. I translate.

“How can I know that now?” Yannos asks me in Greek. “Explain to them that I have to work with the site before I can see how it should be landscaped.”

I tell Yannos how evasive this will sound when I translate it. He can’t feel it, but I can. “Yes, I get it. You’re an artist. But you’re asking this couple to lay out all this money for a house and you can’t even tell them where their terrace will end?”

Yannos sulks but picks up a rock and tosses it out toward a thicket of broom ten or so meters ahead of us. “Jusqu’à quà”, he says, and then continues in Greek as he outlines the spaces of the garden, including where the septic tank will need to go. I struggle for the word in French but it doesn’t come. I probably never learned in the first place.

I switch to English, hoping that Emile will know it. He does.

“Ah oui, la fosse septique,” he says.

I am embarrassed to have reached for my crutch of English but am glad that it’s there. My French can’t really bear the weight of a technical conversation, and I’m relieved as we gradually shift more and more to English. But later I think of this moment and wonder what it must be like for Yannos, who has no crutch to grab on to. If he falters, he falls.

I wonder what it would be like for Americans if we could not rely on our crutch as often as we do. If large swatches of the country spoke a language other than English.

Yannos belongs to an ever diminishing minority of Europeans who cannot speak English. As more of the world’s population becomes competent in English and as more of the world’s trade and information exchange is conducted in languages such as Chinese or Portuguese, Americans will find that they have become part of a different kind of linguistic minority. 

Earlier generations used to consider the inability of foreigners to speak English a sign of underdevelopment or, in the case of the French perhaps, of chauvinism. The rest of the world may come to see American monolingualism in a similar vein. If Americans abroad once lamented that the “natives” could not speak English, the next generation of global citizens may look upon Americans and sigh, “They can only speak English.”



Bruce Davidson, Young man and Coca-Cola machine, 1959.


3 responses to ‘The Gilded Tongue

  1. Once i heard someone say that the world’s lingua franca is wrong English. When I hear foreign ppl speaking my native language wrongly (for instance, speaking Spanish or PortSpanish instead of Portuguese alone), I get offended if I feel they do it out of laziness or misunderstandings; after all, in Brazil we do not speak Spanish and our capital city is not Buenos Aires. Sometimes I also think the native speakers of English may ask what all those ppl are doing with their proper English. Even if foreigners speak it grammatically well, it may not sound quite right. Yes, because I think a language is not just a cluster of words, but a way of thinking and of behaving. That’s why Greek and French ppl think differently to the extent that to make a big bedroom in a house that’s being built in a Greek island may not make any sense to the Greek architect while it is so obvious to the French couple. And you can understand both and has to “translate” more an words.. By the way, Eduard T Hall in his book The Hidden Dimension shows how ppl from different cultures build different houses and cities because they value different things. Then, I think you’re right when you make houses and languages touch. Perhaps there’s a hidden dimension underneath a language as well as behind the corners of our houses.


    • Thanks for your generous comments! I’m not sure if I agree with it all but there’s a lot said to think about.
      Even though I once worked as an English teacher and spent long hours helping my students to become more accurate in their use of the language, I’m not much bothered by mistakes non-native speakers make when they use English. (And I don’t think I could tell whether it was made out of laziness, as you say, or simply the momentary interference of the first language or the imperfect acquisition of a particular grammatical rule). I’m grateful that they are using my language, so the errors seem insignificant or unnoticeable. It’s all about communication in the end, isn’t it? I still marvel at the way in which my own native language is a means by which people of different cultures and backgrounds can talk to one another, even (or especially) when there’re few, if any, native speakers among them. And if the grammar is a little rough around the edges, does it really matter? Indeed, I think we’d better off if we were /less/ concerned about accuracy. From my experience as a teacher—and as a language learner—I’d say that perhaps the greatest impediment to fluency for an adult learning a foreign language is the self-consciousness about making mistakes.


      • Don’t want to overload your front page, but your reply deserves a reply as it was very generous as well. I guess I needed a feedback from an English Native Speaker, thanks. I really understand your generosity towards the mistakes of non-native English speakers like me. As Spanish and Portuguese are similar, Spanish speakers don’t always bother to learn Portuguese, and vice-verse, so one can live for decades in each other’s country without ever learning the language spoken there. I heard the same happened to a Brazilian guy that lived in the US for ten years. During that time he never learnt to speak English because he only worked for the Brazilian community and hanged around with Brazilians. In other words, it was as he’d never left Brazil, and I personally don’t approve of this attitude because behind it there may be a refusal to communicate with your guests, or an arrogance of the sort. Yes, the greatest impediment to fluency is the self-consciousness about making mistakes. However, you can count on the generosity of ppl like you. Usually foreigners are forgiven for the clumsy use of the language; just like children, their use of the language makes them cute. Some other times, just the effort to speak the language of your guest country may call other ppl’s sympathy towards you. Then, why not to try? As you say, isn’t it about communication in the end? About making friends, building relationships, and learning about our neighbors? Doesn’t all these enlarge our mental boundaries? Sorry, sometimes I get confused: I start talking about language, then move to behavior, cultural differences, and even good-will, but I think this all is blended.


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