I’m an American (imagine your grossest Philadelphia accent as you fantasize about me saying that, or, Click here to listen!). In the past, I used to really dread saying I was a member of Uncle Sam’s Elite as I would travel, but as of recently, I’ve come to accept my country, language and generally am grateful that I get to live somewhere where the trash gets picked up, the infrastructure is sound, and I actually have the chance to succeed if I really really really try (being a middle class white guy don’t hurt neither!).
But just a few years ago when I was in college, and before I set out to study abroad, I was petrified of the “horrible” image I thought Americans had while we traveled (yea, still do to some people). We wear Tevas with socks, we are fat as hell, we are uncouth, ignorant about the world and worst of all, expect everyone to just “know” English.
While yes, there are some of these “Americans” lurking around overseas (mostly sex tourists in South East Asia), for the most part, the ones that get the chance to travel abroad are normally respectful of other cultures and are polite (the majority of the time).
One thing that is true about Americans is, we are for the most part, monolinguals. Blame it on the imperialism of our forefathers (my family didn’t even get stateside until the 20th century, I promise!), blame it on our geographic isolation (ok, Australia has it worse), or just blame it on our stars-and-stripes stubbornness to be bothered to roll our tongues to another dance.
While French used to be the de facto international language, the lingua franca now is most definitely English. Believe it or not, English is only the third most spoken language by native speakers, and there are three times less native English speakers than native Mandarin speakers (Spanish is wedged in between the two). Why English then? My theory is, it’s easy to learn at a basal level (Mandarin? not so much), there is so much media and entertainment produced in English, and now a days with the rise of the web and telecommunications, there is so much support needed for English speakers that developing countries have risen to provide it (at the right price). That, and maybe the countless wars we’ve got going at any given time in virtually every corner of the planet.
After living in Barcelona for six months, I was quickly shown that not everyone speaks English, or cares too. But, the people in Catalonia (region where Barcelona is located) are at least bilinguals. They speak both Spanish and Catalan. While I think it is obviously of benefit for everyone to speak just a little bit of English (same goes for Mandarin (kneee howww!, Spanish (Hola!!!!) and French (Bon jour ma cherie!), I think it is more important for my global brethren (and American minions) to speak at least one other language besides their own.
As I have a real love for travel (…you probably knew that), one of my main goals while in college was to really learn another language that would not only let me travel and not seem like a neanderthal, but because I saw the real world value in it, and it has paid dividends in numerous forms (work, women, perspective and just pure fun). Speaking another language is just cool, and guess what, everybody’s doing it! The world is getting smaller and we are interacting more and more with one another, so if you are able to speak, say two “major” languages, you can communicate with almost anyone! Check out this infographic that shows some reasons why being a polyglot is awesome.