Monolingualism: the illiteracy of the 21st century


French Teacher, Sebastien DeClerck stands in front of his world map which he uses to educate his students on geography since it is no longer offered at Ventura High School. Photo by: Charlotte D’Orsi

Charlotte D'Orsi

In 2009, the United States Census Bureau reported that only 20 percent of Americans speak a second language besides English, that’s 61 million out of 305 million, so, in other words, not a lot of people. You may be wondering: “Why is that?” Well, dear reader, the answer is simple: nativism. Just kidding. Well, not really. 

The problem starts with the root of all knowledge in our modern day society: school. The majority of American public schools begin offering foreign language classes in high school, several years after the brain’s procedural memory system (the part of the brain having to do with things people know how to do inherently, or without thinking) has done the majority of its developing. This is not a very bright idea, to say the least. When asked what he would change about the way language classes are run in the United States, French teacher, Sebastien DeClerck said that “in an ideal world, [he] would start [language classes] right away, as soon as kids start school,” which he believes is “a great thing, pedagogically.” 

DeClerck is right, the human brain is much more likely to retain an amount of information as large as an entire language before the age of 10 as it is still in its early developing stages. It is for this reason that beginning to learn a language at the age of 14 for only five hours a week is comparable to staying committed to veganism, it’s possible but very difficult and you’ll probably give up.

But what’s so special about learning a new language? Do we even need them? DeClerck noted that many people look at bilingualism as something that is “practical and can get you a better job” however he says that “that’s a real superficial argument that tends to be the one that dominates.” DeClerck explains how, to him, “what you really get from language is a different perspective into a broader mind and a different way of thinking.” I agree, kids should not take foreign language classes because they are obligated to do so and feel it is necessary to get a better job, but rather because they want to immerse themselves into a new culture that is completely unlike what they are used to. DeClerck explained, “I don’t want to sound arrogant or elitist but educated people really need to have experiences in a culture that is not their own.”

Many other countries are far more advanced than the US with respect to requiring foreign language classes to students starting in elementary school. In Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, and Malta, students begin taking English, Spanish, French, or German classes at the age of six; in Quebec, schools begin requiring English classes in first grade. Senior, Olivia Jacobson—who spent her elementary school years in Denmark— explained that “they started teaching English in the first grade and German in fifth. [She] loved it because that meant that [she] grew up proficient in three languages.”

However, the ill timing of language classes being offered isn’t the only thing fostering high numbers of monolingual US citizens, the social norm of staying within the enormous United States bubble with few government officials who speak more than one language or who have never even seen the world outside of our country does nothing to encourage citizens to recognize the importance of language and what a great tool it is when visiting the rest of the world. DeClerck explained that “the majority of our senators don’t have passports and have not left the country. […] How do you decide policy and understand the world if you’ve never seen it?” On top of that, only 17 out of 45 presidents were or are fluent in more than one language. As DeClerck put it, “we live in a country that doesn’t really understand or appreciate the importance of [travel and diverging cultures.]” Not to mention that “we live in a school district that says we don’t have to study geography” and instead requires classes that are strictly focused on college and self-exploration rather than looking at the world beyond in order to “come to a better understanding of yourself.”

In closing, if you are reading this article and just so happened to only speak one language, you shouldn’t feel as though you’re “stupid” or “illiterate” (as DeClerck’s “Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century” bumper sticker reads,) instead you should feel angry at the fact that American society and public education have both deprived you of the experience of seeing the world from a different perspective as they have failed to provide you with the proper tools to do so at the correct time in your life. Hopefully changes to the timing and regulation of public school language classes will be administered at some point in the future, but unfortunately I do not see that happening anytime soon.

Click below to listen to the interview with Mr. DeClerck: