Is The Old Joke Passé?

There used to be an old joke that went  something like this:

Q: What do you call a person who speaks 2 languages?

A: Bilingual

Q: What do you call a person who speaks 3 languages?

A: Trilingual

Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?

A: An American

Recent observations make me think this may no longer be true.

First, the idea that people in other countries all learn to speak English as part of their education doesn’t seem valid now.

Last week we were in that modern crossroads of the world, Las Vegas. While there, we had contact with a couple of large groups touring from two different, highly developed, non-English speaking, European countries.  I won’t mention names, but you may be able to guess.

In one group of about 10 people we met at breakfast at our hotel,  only one knew a little  English.  I was able to converse with another in Spanish because he had taken a couple of years in high school. I found myself “dumbing down” the conversation for him to suit his very limited vocabulary and grammar.

In another group of about a dozen, having a celebration at a large table next to us at the Harley Davidson Cafe, only 2 or 3 were able to speak English, and at least one of them was an American.

What has happened to the classic European education where everyone learned at least one other language, and for most of them it was English?  Are they now all studying Chinese? Or are they now the punch line of the old joke?

On the other hand, let’s look at another modern crossroads of the world, the American public school.  Even where there is a misguided “English Only” policy, the children on the playground may be using and sharing a variety of languages from all over the world as they play.

Private schools and magnet schools attract students with programs that feature second and even third language learning from an early age. These fortunate children will be well prepared for the world of the 21st Century where successful people will be those who are able to work and interact with people from many other lands and cultures.

These are just casual observations without any special studies or facts to back them up.  But I’ll bet if someone did do research on the topic they would find them valid. Perhaps it has already been done.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep on studying a little Chinese, a little Russian, and working on perfecting my Spanish skills.  What other language do you know or are you learning? Or do you want to stay as the punch line for the old joke?

If you would like to expand your language horizons, I can recommend a couple of resources that are mostly free:

Live Mocha: Free lessons in several popular languages. Method is similar to that expensive set of DVDs you see advertised all the time. Offers opportunities to converse online in the new language with native speakers. You are expected to “give back” by helping others who are studying English.

Radio Lingua: Free language lessons in 20+ languages to download for your iPod or other mp3 player. The audio lessons are free. You can also subscribe to a paid service with printed materials to accompany the audio materials.  I was somewhat taken aback to find their Spanish lessons were not presented by a native speaker. Maybe it has changed since I last tried it, but it used to be done by someone speaking Spanish with a heavy Scottish brogue!


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