One of the most enduring jokes that has been made–a version of it goes all the way back to Shakespeare’s Merchant Of Venice–about the English is the way that they are so relentlessly monolingual. Similar things have been said about Americans as well, with a fair amount of justice. When one compares the linguistic achievements of the English and Americans to others, a fair amount of criticism can be made about the differences. It is not uncommon to see someone like tennis great Roger Federer conduct simultaneous interviews and leap between English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages. Meanwhile, in quite a few locations I have been about the only person who has been able to leap from one language to another, and so any time I am in a place where others need something translated from English to Spanish I have been asked to do so, and have even had specific jobs that related to my abilities to speak in Spanish, as modest as they are.
Why is this so? Why are Americans and the English so relentlessly monolingual when this is not a general facet of the world in which we live? Much can be made about the patterns and habits of imperialism, but this particular trait was noted by Shakespeare in the 16th and early 17th century before British (to say nothing of American) imperialism was very far progressed. And it is not as if there have not been many opportunities for the English to learn other languages. On the British Isles there are languages like Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish which have never been learned to any great degree by the English. England faced repeated invasions by Vikings and was ruled for centuries by a French-speaking elite, and while these languages (especially French) enriched the English vocabulary, it did not lead to a rise in bilingualism among the English-speaking conversation. Nor, it should be noted, has bilingualism been a notable feature in Canada or the United States despite the large presence of speakers of French and Spanish, respectively, in those two countries.
In my experience, it has not been so much a lack of opportunity or even a lack of need but a lack of interest within societies in learning other languages. Perhaps the most striking example of this I have ever found is my experiences visiting Colombia, where I was struck by just how few people knew English within the general population. There it was a great benefit that I happened to know Spanish, far beyond the case in many other countries I have visited in Latin America. It has been my experience that this sort of feeling that one’s own culture is worthwhile enough that those who come there need to adapt themselves to it is a rare one, but coming from a culture like that (and sharing such a mindset personally) has made me sensitive to the reality of how that appears from the other side.
As someone who has frequently found it necessary to translate my own thoughts into other languages and to serve as a bridge between people whose discussion would be mutually intelligible otherwise, I have to say that it has always been a great struggle for me to feel as if I am communicating successfully in another language. Yet it has often been hard enough to feel as if I have communicated well in my own language. As someone whose intellectual and emotional life has frequently been subterranean, it is perhaps unsurprising that I translate so much in my life between different languages since it has frequently been the case that I have had to translate my perspective to others who have been similarly puzzled by where I am coming from in regular day-to-day interactions. Those who feel as if they are isolated and surrounded by those who speak in other tongues may find it necessary to gain enough skill in those tongues to communicate themselves with others. It is only those who happen to find themselves around others who think the same and talk the same who feel sufficient in that. It is hard not to be envious of that.