Why It’s Strange That Everybody in the United States Speaks English

By: Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

Imagine you’re a tourist planning on visiting India. Determined not to be seen as culturally ignorant, you’ve decided to learn Hindi, the official language. As the plane lands in Bangladore, you are confident that you can speak in the native language.

Except when you get out onto the street, the people aren’t speaking Hindi. They’re talking in a dialect of Kannada, and you can’t understand them.

Eventually, after several painstaking months, you learn Kannada as spoken in Bangladore. Now you’re really confident that you’ve got this thing down; you know both Hindi and a very local dialect. You fly to Mumbai.

Except in Mumbai the people on the street don’t speak Kannada, Hindi, or English. They speak Marathi. And a fair share of the elite speak English.

Might as well have stayed with English.

Or imagine you’re visiting China. Once again, as a culturally competent individual you’ve mastered Mandarin, and blast into Shanghai completely prepared.

In Shanghai, however, it turns out that the local language is Shanghainese. You didn’t even know that existed, but when local residents talk to each other you don’t understand any of it.

A local friend you’ve made later, born and bred in Shanghai, confides to you that he feels uncomfortable going to other provinces. In Guangdong locals speak in Cantonese; in Sichuan they speak in Sichuanese; in Tibet they speak in Tibetan; he can’t understand any of it. True, locals can switch to standard Mandarin when talking with non-locals, but he still feels like a foreigner outside Shanghai.

The next day you board a plane back to the United States, where everybody understands and speaks the same exact language. Every word that a person says in Seattle can be comprehended by a person in Houston; every word that a person says in Houston can be comprehended by a New Yorker. With the exception of the South and a few inner-city ghettos, there is even no difference in accent.

This achievement is frequently understated. Many Americans simply assume that things are like this in other countries – everybody in the Middle East speaks Arabic (true, but the regional dialects are mutually incomprehensible), everybody in Nigeria speaks “Nigerian” (definitely not true).

In truth, as the examples of China and India show, it is actually quite strange to think that in a continent-stretching nation with hundreds of millions (or billions) of people, it would be the case that the language would be so uniform. Few countries can claim to have done this. Brazil is one. Russia is another – but remember that Russia is the descendant of the Soviet Union, which tried and failed to impose a Russian common language upon the tens of millions of its non-Russian citizens.

Some conservatives complain that nowadays, there are too many Mexicans who don’t know English. Yet of the Hispanic immigrants who enter the United States, only 6% of their grandchildren will speak Spanish at home.

The extent to which the United States has succeeded in establishing a common language, across a continent and through three hundred million people, remains an amazing, if much-ignored, accomplishment.

 

 

Tags: English, languages, United States (all tags)

Comments

3 Comments

You can't compare

the United States to India or China because the settled indigenous languages in North America were essentially wiped out by colonization. 

Vast stretches of the Western Hemisphere are mono-lingual because the native inhabitants were wiped out thus eradicating their languages. The linguistic diversity that exists in Eurasia and Africa did once exist in the Americas but 500 years of European immigration eradicated much of that diversity. It's frankly amazing that indigenous tongues are still common in parts of Mexico and the Andes. In the US, only the Navajo have retained their language in any numbers. There are some 200,000 native speakers but of these less than 5 percent are monolingual. 

Russia isn't as monolingual as you purport it to be. No doubt the Russian expansion eastward post 1750 in which Russia gained 55 square miles per day, basically an area slightly larger than San Francisco, over a 150 year period eradicated many languages in the sparsely settled north Eurasian tundra and steppes but remarkably Russia still counts 101 living languages. The US counts 176 living languages but these are mostly immigrant, non-native languages. Australia and Canada are the countries with an experience most like the US. 

Worldwide, the trend is towards fewer languages, each with more speakers. In both China and India, Mandarin and Hindi are gaining speakers at the expense of local regional languages. What is really remarkable is how countries like Spain with six major plus a few minor regional languages and the Netherlands with three major languages and several distinct regional dialects have retained their linguistic diversity.

by Charles Lemos 2011-04-14 01:47PM | 0 recs
Thanks for the response.

It's pretty enlightening, because I wasn't 100% confident in all of my research when I did this.

You're absolutely right about the United States with respect to the native inhabitants. Actually, I was thinking about putting Mexico or Spain as examples where millions of people speak different languages from birth.

Do you have any links/sources about your Russian information? That was one of the countries which I was less certain about in my statements.

by Inoljt 2011-04-16 11:06PM | 0 recs
RE: Thanks for the response.

There is an book called Empires of the Word by historical linguist Nicholas Ostler that looks at the rise of global tongues such as English, Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic, and Swahili among live languages and Greek and Latin among dead ones.

by Charles Lemos 2011-04-19 01:51PM | 0 recs

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