American Bilingualism and Globalization

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on April 6, 2012

"Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world" is the insipid platitude that begins an article flatly asserting that "Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter." What does one have to do with the other? Nothing that is immediately obvious.

If speaking another language is desirable on the basis of living in a globalized world, then becoming smarter is an added benefit. If becoming smarter is the real benefit, that would appear to be its own reward whether the world is globalized or not. But perhaps the author meant to say that learning a second language makes you smarter, which then makes you better able to compete and prosper in a globalized world. Or whatever.

Actually, it turns out that both propositions need rethinking. Just what are the benefits of speaking a second language "in an increasingly globalized world"? One would suppose that had something to do with what the second language was, and how it might be used.

Consider another New York Times article that details the story of a man who wants his children to learn to speak Chinese. He says, "my children have had a Mandarin-speaking nanny since they were four months old, even though neither I nor my partner — both Americans — speak Chinese." Why is he doing this?

Well, he says, "From a purely practical point of view, by the time my children graduate from high school, China will probably have the largest economy in the world." That's right, from a "purely practical point of view". Apparently, he thinks that his children will need to be fluent in Mandarin to make their way in the world economically, or perhaps to read the instructions that come with their new electronic gadgets.

Perhaps it is just the age-old parental desire to give their children a leg up in life, or perhaps to help them avoid their parents' own felt deficiencies. As the Times notes in a story about babysitters hired for their foreign-language abilities, "Parents cite different reasons for hiring babysitters and nannies to speak a second language with their children. Some struggled to pick up foreign languages and want to make life easier for their children. Some believe it makes them smarter. And naturally, this being the melting pot that is New York, many parents have a connection to another language and want to reinforce it."

The people depicted in the Times story all seem to be upper-middle-class parents and learning a second or even a third language is an addition to the basic fact that both parents can and do speak fluent English.

And therein lies the real distinction. Those who, like the author, tout bilingualism because we live in "an increasing globalized world" are assuming a level of English faculty in their home country. No parent living in America would insist that his or her child not learn English early and well.

But some pundits and politicians do.

In 2011, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof offered up the idea that "Every child in the United States should learn Spanish." Like the parents who hired a Mandarin speaking babysitter, Kristof is a "fervent believer in more American kids learning Chinese". But he is willing to settle, because, "the language that will be essential for Americans and has far more day-to-day applications is Spanish." (emphasis added)

I see. Contained within his recommendation is the assumption that new immigrants who speak Spanish may or will not learn to speak English, so Americans had better learn Spanish. But why stop there? What of our Chinese immigrants? Maybe we should all hire Mandarin-speaking helpers.

Others are willing to start on a smaller scale. In 2005, Florida state Sen. Les Miller (D-Tampa) introduced a bill that would have required every public school child to learn Spanish, starting in kindergarten. His reasoning was that, "More and more jobs in Florida require applicants to be bilingual". Yes, it would no doubt be helpful to have department store clerks who can facilitate sales from wealthy South American visitors or have Spanish-speaking real estate brokers, doctors, and lawyers able to speak more easily with their Spanish-speaking clients.

If the clients Sen. Miller has in mind are well-to-do South American tourists, requiring mandatory Spanish language instruction for every public school student seems a bit much. If the clients he has in mind are immigrants to the United States, then his plan is a recipe for slowing down that crucial element of English acquisition.

As to his other rationale that learning Spanish "will make Florida students more competitive with people around the world", I can only recommend to him and others who think like him, the story of the parent who hired a Mandarin-speaking nanny for his children because the Chinese will, in the future, have "the largest economy in the world."

Perhaps it would be better to study Esperanto.