To Speak or Not to Speak, That is the Question

While perusing the internet for news this morning, this BBC article entitled ‘Poor Language Skills ‘Leave Britons Out of EU Jobs’ ‘ caught my eye.

It seems that while Brits make up 12% of the population of the European Union, they only fill 5% of the jobs in the EU Parliament and Commission. 

This is due in part to fewer candidates possessing the requisite foreign language skills beyond their native tongue.

Now as an American, I’m used to reading about how few of my fellow citizens actually speak a second language, let along a third or fourth. So it was a little startling to have another country in the ‘monolingual hotseat’, as it were.

Not a day goes by that I don’t interact with dozens of people who are bi- or multilingual.

I realize that living overseas in a country whose language is not English puts me in that position, and I’ve mentioned before that many Dutch learn English in school (some also learn German and/or French). There are plenty who only speak Dutch, but plenty more who speak at least one other language.

What I’m getting at is that so many people in the world do speak more than one language. 

So I started to do a little research to see how many of the world’s population of 6.9 billion people are believed to be monolingual, and thus how many are bi- or multilingual.

The short answer is that nobody knows. There have been attempts to estimate the numbers, but they are long on suppositions and extrapolations and short on statistics.

I couldn’t find a site that would nail this down.

Answers.com stated that 1 billion people speak more than 2 languages. But I didn’t see a citation, and there was no mention of how many people speak only two languages so that I could calculate how many speak 2 or more languages.

I did find this small Welsh site that claimed that ‘published estimates’ indicate approximately 60-75% of the world’s population is at least bilingual. Unfortunately, it didn’t publish these ‘published estimates’.

There appears to be universal agreement that the language spoken by the most people in the world is Chinese, which is not suprising given that China has a population of 1.33 billion (World Bank).

I also learned that of the estimated 2 billion people worldwide using the Internet, some 537 million do so in English (as of June 30, 2010). The second most popular language used on the Internet is Chinese with 445 million. No other language comes close.

So what does all of this mean? Well, to someone who is fluent or proficient in multiple languages like my Dutch neighbors Anneke (4), her husband Braam (5), Marta (3) and Jaap (4), it underscores what they already know: globalization and technology are helping make the world seem smaller.

Once you’ve gotten over the hurdle of learning a second language, it becomes easier to learn more.

To someone whose native tongue is English and speaks no other language well enough to be considered proficient, let alone fluent, it means I’m in the minority.

But as someone who, over the years, has also studied enough Dutch (and Spanish if I reviewed) to converse, enough French and Italian to get around, and a smattering of German to order off a menu and count, my response would be ‘I’m trying! I’m truly trying.’

Believe me, I’m no language wunderkind. I’ve struggled, made copious amounts of mistakes, embarrassed myself innumerable times, bumbled along and worked pretty darn hard to get to where I am.

But to focus only on proficiency or fluency is, in my humble opinion, missing the point. 

If you were giving out foreign language report cards, I’d be bringing home Cs and Ds, not As and Bs. Yet the person who doesn’t see the benefits of learning another language (or who sees the benefits but can’t be bothered), is bringing home Fs. 

I believe it is important to try learning another language, especially if you live in a foreign country; I wrote the article ‘Ten Reasons to Learn Dutch’ (pp.14-15) precisely because of that belief. I value that effort.

If you don’t live in a foreign country, trying to learn another language is more difficult. But the benefits are still there for when you do travel abroad. And if you don’t intend to travel outside your country, who knows? Maybe learning more about another language will inspire you to travel.

The same holds true for Husband (Italian to converse, French to get around), Son (German somewhere between getting around and conversing), and Daughter (French to get around).

Even my brother, who visited recently, dipped back into his high school German. By comparing and contrasting the Dutch he heard and saw with what German he knew, he was able to pick up quickly on pronunciations.

We’re all still working on it. We may or may not ever achieve proficiency in a second language, but we’re doing our best to close the gap.

So to sum up what I’ve discovered about multilingualism, I’ll do a play on Michael Pollan’ rules on food.

Speak languages. Keep Learning. Try Your Best.

[Image credit: Renjith Krishnan portfolio 721 freedigitalphotos.net]


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