West Virginia is about 500 km (300 miles) from the country’s capital of Washington, DC, but it feels worlds away. The demise of coal mining and poverty have plunged it into the heart of the opioid crisis and despite promises from a whole string of politicians, nobody has come to their rescue. Perhaps this feeling of isolation has prompted its largest university to eliminate its world language program. Other U.S. universities are making similar cuts.
But at the heart of this is the knowledge that English has become the lingua franca of the world — so why bother learning anything else when everyone speaks your language?
This is the very definition of insular thinking. After all, the U.S. is a huge island. Mexico, that big country at the southern border, is vacationland and where all those immigrants gather who want to get into the U.S. And Canada? They’re just like us, unless you go to Quebec, in which case you get to practice those two words of high school French that you still remember.
“Bonjour!” “Merci!” and “Au revoir!“
Oh, wow, that’s even three words!
But don’t worry, if you can’t remember these, either, all the Quebecois know English, so you’re off the hook.
People are often awed by my fluent German. While soaking up the compliments, I also cringe. I’ve been living here for decades — shouldn’t I speak fluently? The painful answer to this is: no.
Wikipedia says it best in its opening sentence: “Language education in the United States has historically involved teaching American English to immigrants…”
This mentality is embedded in the language itself. Why do U.S. citizens feel legitimate calling themselves “Americans” when this expression applies to people from all of North America, Central America, and South America? Yet the overriding economic and cultural influence of the U.S. has brought the whole world to understand that American means “us.”
I didn’t think twice about this possible distinction until I innocently replied to a question about my provenance from a Venezuelan woman while I was living in Spain.