1. We expect everyone to speak English. It’s not just about people with American flag baseball hats who get mad at migrant workers for not being proficient in Shakespeare. It’s about us going to other countries and expecting to just speak with them in English or Louder English with total abandon. I was asking around for an upcoming trip to Portugal if anyone knew any good YouTube tutorials for pronunciation, and most people were like “Eh, they all speak English.” A) No they definitely do not, and B) What a terrible and presumptuous thing to think!
2. We view speaking other languages as some kind of brag. One thing that every American who speaks a second language learns very quickly is that you should be VERY DISCREET about it if possible, because people are going to immediately accuse you of “showing off” or “rubbing it in their faces.” (Alternatively, you will be asked to spout a bunch of random phrases, which is equally weird.) But this is silly for so many reasons, mostly because speaking two language is the bare minimum in so many places. Have you met Scandinavian people? If they aren’t quadrilingual, they are a shame on their ancestors and an anomaly. There should be nothing special about speaking more than one language.
3. Learning languages has never been more convenient. Duolingo is the best thing ever, and it’s totally free. There are more free tutorials than a human being could ever consume on YouTube. There are constant, free Meetups in every major city for nearly every language you could want to learn. If you’re really shady, you can steal Rosetta Stone (although I must dissuade this, ethically).
4. New languages change your perception. One of the great things about learning a new language is that it broadens your perception enormously, and gives you a literal new way to think about everything you know. There is new slang, new ritual, and words for things you’ve never even imagined existed.
5. So many people have to do it out of necessity. Any time you want to tell yourself that once you’ve reached a certain age, and are therefore no longer the linguistic sponge that you once were and shouldn’t even try, you should think about all of the people who move somewhere well into adulthood and are obligated to learn. These people manage it, and there’s no reason that you can’t do it yourself.
6. It’s not considered an undertaking to learn a second language in most of the world. If you speak French in any New York taxi, you’ll often find that the driver is North African, and he will interject with flawless French, on top of his English, Arabic, and local dialect. And he will be embarrassed about NOT SPEAKING SPANISH WELL ENOUGH. And people will make judgments on him for having a mild accent. How is this not the most awful thing imaginable?
7. Our media often gets stories wildly wrong. Pretty much any time we hear a story about another country, or vaguely taken from a foreign publication, we should make it a point to seek out a person who is fluent in that language or from that culture, because 9 times out of 10, our version of the story is, frankly, insane.
8. Subtitles often get it wrong. This is true of English movies, by the way. Our movies get exported with bananas titles and really questionable subtitles on a daily basis, and that should also be rectified. But we’re also getting the overall idea wrong. Several terrible subtitle translations have been made into memes around the world, and we should not be settling for this.
9. Traveling should be an occasion to learn. You don’t have to be straight-up spying on passerby, but it would be nice if you could be vaguely enriched by the local conversation that was happening around you while you traveled. (And could also take the voyage as a springboard to learning a whole new language that will enrich you throughout the rest of your life.)
10. It can easily become a career. If you speak a second language, take whatever job opportunities you currently have, and more or less double them. Which I think we all understand is a pretty important thing.
11. We take the internet for granted. On the few occasions I’ve published an article in another language, it’s been shocking the degree to which it made me insecure. Even though I knew what I was saying and felt confident in my words, the idea of being thrust into a community and readership that you’re not used to, and expressing yourself in the language that you did not grow up in culturally, is terrifying. This is what the internet is like, on a daily basis, for a lot of the world. We make fun of them for their broken writing on our websites and videos and memes, but that makes us assholes. Because they are trying, and it is really, really hard.
12. It’s too easy to exaggerate what we can actually do. Not to call us all out, because I have definitely done this with Spanish on occasions, but we as a country truly need to stop being like “Oh, I speak ____!” when we absolutely do not. It’s so beyond awkward when someone calls you on that, and no one is forcing you to lie. Instead of lying, let’s channel that energy into actually attempting to learn these things!
13. Breaking stereotypes is fun! It’s sad, but it’s truly stereotype-busting when you master another language as an American, and go to that country to use it. And it’s important to do, because the more of us who engage in that kind of behavior, the better reputation we will all have around the world.
14. Reading works in their original language is amazing. It’s a really uphill battle to get there, but when you do, it feels like climbing a mountain.
15. The whole world mocks us, and they kind of have a point. There are definitely other cultures that are bad with second languages, and not all of them are even Anglophones. But Americans often take such a deep pride in being monolingual that it’s a viable source of mockery for the billions of people around the world who see language as one of the greatest gifts and necessities we have as people. And I am more defensive than anyone when it comes to unjust American-bashing, but here, it’s really hard to argue with the judgment.
16. There’s lots of great entertainment that we can’t have access to in English. Literally every language out there has something to offer in terms of “untranslatable-yet-awesome pop culture,” and we all deserve to experience at least one of those in our lives.
17. There are so many people that we’ll never meet if we only exist in English. Perhaps the strongest argument out there for learning a second (or third, or whatever) language, is that there are so many people out there who are amazing and enriching and maybe even someone we’ll fall in love with, but we’ll likely never get a chance to interact with them if we don’t learn to communicate. Why not add another hundred-something million people to your chances to have sweet, fulfilling relationships with? And this isn’t just about getting that #ForeignBooty, though that is part of it. It’s about friends, and conversations on a park bench, and possible coworkers, and a whole life that you could be living, if you just reached out to find it.