You know and I know that other countries make fun of the fact that most Americans only rarely speak another language. But behind that truism, there’s plenty of subtle forces that influence the attitude that Americans have towards learning another language. And attitude, I’d argue, is everything. You can discern a few peaks into that attitude in this interactive chart by Pimsleur Approach, a rapid language-learning course.
Pimsleur simply took its own data on the languages that people are interested in learning, and broke it down by state. Almost without exception, people want to learn Spanish, trailed almost always by French:
There are some exceptions to that rule: Wisconsin, which has a large population of people descended from German immigrants, for example. And New Jersey, which has a large population of Italian Americans. But almost without fail, the Spanish/French pattern holds.
What’s going on here? It bears remembering that America is the world’s only superpower that isn’t bordered by a country of similar might–thus, learning another language just doesn’t feel like that much of a necessity as it does in Europe and other parts of the world. But the one thing that America does have is a tremendous influx of Hispanic immigrants. So it’s no surprise that people want to learn Spanish–it’s useful and there are plenty of opportunities to speak it.
What’s more surprising is French. How often would you really get a chance to use that? Maybe once every few years, on a frustrating vacation where the waiters sneer at you? The point I’m trying to make is that learning French is probably much more of a cultural luxury–there’s still this vague idea that speaking French lends the speaker some cultural panache.
It would be interesting to see how this data compares, say, to that of universities, where liberal arts curricula often require language courses. There, I’d bet you’d see a lot more popularity in the languages that will help students compete in the job market–Chinese being the most obvious example. But I’d also bet that French would still be massively more popular. (On college campuses, I’ll bet you’d find a lot more jerks bragging about visiting Paris than Peking.) Americans will probably always see a second language as a luxury rather than a necessity–no matter how much that attitude hurts our global competitiveness.