Found in Translation


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Why are people monolingual? Cracking the mystery of those lazy Americans

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?


What do you call someone who speaks three languages?


What do you call someone who speaks one language?


Let the record show that I use the word “American” to mean “of the United States” in full awareness of the fact that the term “America” encompasses two continents. I believe there is no better term than “American” to express “of the United States” in English. My views on the use of the word “American” are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the full staff, Texas State student media, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication or Texas State University.

American monolingualism is legendary. We’ve all seen the films with the American tourist speaking English loudly and slowly to someone who clearly doesn’t speak it. Millenials sitting in language classes look wistfully to Europe and wonder why they, too, weren’t raised speaking four languages. All they know is it has something to do with ‘Murican patriotism and xenophobia, probably.

But are we really monolingual? Michael Erard challenged the supposition in a 2012 New York Times op-ed appropriately titled “Are we really monolingual?” Erard argues the commonly cited statistic that only 20 percent of Americans are bilingual is not accurate.

The statistic, he reasons, is not reliable for measuring bilingualism because it is based on a U.S. census question measuring not whether people speak two languages but whether they speak a language other than English in their homes. The question leaves out people who speak English in the home but use another language in their professional lives or in relationships with people outside the home.

When one considers this fact, the idea that the United States is not as monolingual as we think it is seems entirely possible. Yet, as Erard states, the idea persists that Americans are afflicted with “lazy monolingualism” and the rest of the world is much more bilingual by comparison.

I have no competency in statistics, so I can’t speak to the veracity of Erard’s claims. I think it’s worth noting that bilingualism expert Francis Grosjean supports the 20 percent figure while acknowledging the difficulty in finding a truly accurate statistic, so any stance should still be taken with a normal grain of salt.

For me, though, the issue raises two important and related questions. If we are monolingual, then what is the reason for it? And if we’re not so monolingual, why does the myth persist?

Earlier I made a joke of the ‘Murica stereotype, but I do think it’s safe to say Americans are fairly ethnocentric. This is not a conscious bias on our part but rather a cultural reality that stems in part from geographic isolation and a fair duration of world-power status over our brief national history.

In Bilingual: Life and reality, Grosjean states geography is a strong predictor for bilingualism or a lack thereof, with more prevalent bilingualism along linguistic borders and higher monolingualism in larger countries. American monolingualism makes more sense in light of this fact.

The size and isolation of the United States mean English-speaking Americans generally do not come into contact with other languages frequently enough to pick them up. The obvious exception to this is our shared border with Mexico, which accounts for the comparatively common English-Spanish bilingualism of the South. French Canada adds a further linguistic influence, but overall our geography leaves us with little motivation, comparatively speaking, to learn a second language.

Still, in today’s globalized culture, contact with other languages isn’t dependent on geography, and proximity to a culture in which another language is spoken isn’t the only reason to learn another language. Erard illustrates this in his overview of English-dominant American bilinguals, which includes “those of us who have learned other languages in school or through living abroad” and “enthusiasts learning languages with computer software like Rosetta Stone.” Yet these people are seen as the exception.

Whether they are or not is beside the point. Given the murkiness of the statistics, I believe the image of American monolingualism exists not because we necessarily are monolingual but because others see us as monolingual and—more importantly—we see ourselves as monolingual. Bilingualism, we think, is a trait that’s appropriate to Europe, where all those tiny little countries chill out with their nationalized health care and share their languages, or to people who immigrate to the United States and “should learn our language” (or American expats who immigrate to somewhere else, for that matter).

Bilingualism is undoubtedly respected in the United States, but it’s too often seen as a foreign trait, and it shouldn’t be that way. The United States needs to embrace its bilingualism—however much we have—and realize that there are many types of bilinguals, not all of whom call soccer “football.”

Follow Sam Hankins on Twitter at @VerbsEverywhere


What is a bilingual? Language competency and the trouble with self-reporting

This post is intended as the beginning of a two-part response to a New York Times op-ed entitled “Are we really monolingual?” In this post, I will illustrate the difficulties in determining a population’s bilingualism. In my next post, I will examine the issue of American monolingualism.

Right around half of the world’s population is bilingual, with the occasional disclaimer of “slightly more than” or “slightly less than” depending on who you ask. Imprecise estimates are nothing new when it comes to global statistics, but the numbers on bilingualism are vague for a specific reason. Nobody knows what a “bilingual” is.

Well, sort of. Any dictionary can tell you a bilingual is someone who speaks two or more languages. But how much of a language does one have to know to be considered able to speak that language?

People who have more than one native language or speak their other language with native fluency obviously fit the bill. Down the line, there are people who speak their other language at all kinds of levels, from people with near-native fluency to people who can read and write in a language but not speak it very well (or vice versa). There are also those high school language students learning to say “Hello, my name is _____.” Where’s the line? At what point do these people stop (or start) being bilingual?

This diversity in language skill is a key point in Michael Erard’s op-ed, “Are we really monolingual?” Writing for The New York Times, he cites various examples of Americans who use languages other than English, including “workers in hospitals, clinics, courts and retail stores who have picked up parts of another language to make their jobs easier” and “soldiers back from Iraq or Afghanistan with some competency in Arabic, Pashto or Dari.” Are these people bilingual?

If they are, the people running the U.S. Census Bureau don’t seem to care and therein lies part of the problem with determining how many people are bilingual. Erard explains the American Community Survey simply asks people whether they speak a language besides English at home, thereby leaving out people who have competency in a language they don’t use in their private lives.

Bilinguals themselves have ideas about what it means to be bilingual that are as diverse as their command of the languages they speak. A person who went on vacation for a month or two and picked up enough of the local language to get by may self-identify as a bilingual. Conversely, a person who knows another language very well but is not on par with a native speaker may hesitate to claim the honor of being bilingual.

Who is really bilingual? Am I bilingual? I’ve been studying Spanish for years. My reading and writing is good. My speaking and listening has gotten a lot better since I spent the summer in Buenos Aires. I can hold a conversation in Spanish with an occasional “Cómo?” if the other person is going too fast, but I’m clearly not a native speaker. Am I bilingual?

My résumé tells employers that I have “advanced command of written and spoken Spanish.” On the yes/no scale I identify as bilingual, but when asked about my language skills I’m more likely to say, “Oh, I speak it pretty well,” or “Yeah, I mean, a little,” depending on how confident I’m feeling that day. Statements like that give a clearer impression than “I’m bilingual” or “I’m not bilingual.”

I view bilingualism as a gradable skill, not something you either have or you don’t. Asking someone if they’re bilingual is a little like asking someone if they’re an artist.

I come from a creative writing background, and I can personally tell you that asking someone if they’re a good writer never ends well. A lot of writers will give you an answer along the lines of “Oh, well, I try to be.” Anything more positive or negative tells you more about the person’s confidence level than his or her writing ability.

Other writers, including left-brainers like myself, try to give a quantitative answer by describing the volume of their work or honors they’ve received. Something like that is as close as we’re likely to get in determining what portion of a given population is bilingual. We can ask what language people speak in their homes. We can ask, as the Swiss census does, whether people think in one or more languages.

Erard favors a question posed by the European Commission: Can you have a conversation in a language besides your mother tongue? But even this generously unrestrictive question doesn’t take into account the write-it-but-not-speak-it crowd or the budding conversationalists who can listen or respond but not both.

Specific questions can help to determine the language competency of an individual or a population, but the bilingualism of the same is a bit too hazy to pin down, she said as she prepared to write a follow-up post on the bilingualism (or lack thereof) of the United States.


American monolingualism is something I’ve wanted to write about since the beginning. And in light of the information in today’s post, things are about to get interesting.

Follow Sam Hankins on Twitter at @VerbsEverywhere


Endangered languages: What they are and why we should care

Mention the phrase “endangered species,” and your listener will have an immediate mental reaction.

The phrase might conjure up images of exotic creatures living in the Amazon or, for a San Marcos resident, the unique animals swimming around in the Edwards Aquifer. Everyone has seen the banners urging people to “Save the Whales” and the warnings not to buy a certain product that puts a certain species at risk. Everyone knows what an endangered species is.

Mention the phrase “endangered language,” and you’re more likely to meet with confusion.

Most people are familiar with the term “dead language” and know it refers to a language like Latin or ancient Greek that is no longer spoken as a first language in any part of the world. But language death is a lot more contemporary than veni, vidi, vici. That’s because, according to National Geographic, one language dies every two weeks.

The good news is the languages taught in Texas State’s Centennial Hall aren’t going to be dying out anytime soon. The bad news is a multitude of languages you may never have heard of are much more at risk.

We don’t know exactly how many languages are spoken in the world today, but most estimates place the number upward of 3,000. The fact that comparatively few languages are widely recognized might lead one to think there is a massive discrepancy between the number of people who speak one language or another, in which case one would be correct.

According to National Geographic, about 78 percent of the people speak less than 0.01 percent of the languages. #OccupyGoogleTranslate, I suppose. About half of the world’s languages have fewer than 10,000 native speakers, according to the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project. About half of those languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people each. Down the line, one encounters languages with 100 native speakers, 50 native speakers or even two native speakers left in the world. These numbers are startling when one considers Spanish is spoken by 329 million people around the world.

Numbers are not the only way to measure language endangerment. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) identifies nine factors to be considered when determining whether a language is at risk. “Absolute number of speakers” is one item. “Proportion of speakers within the total population” is another.

Some of the items listed are less easily quantifiable. “Amount and quality of documentation” can be a problem with languages that don’t have accepted writing systems. “Availability of materials for language education and literacy” goes hand in hand with “governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies including official status and use.” If the language of one’s parents isn’t widely used in educational and other official circles, another one will have to do.

“But Sam,” I hear you say, “you write about bilingualism. This stuff about endangered languages is interesting, but it’s not strictly your area of expertise. Why bring it up?”

Because bilingualism, properly embraced, is a possible solution to the world’s current epidemic of language loss.

Kids whose parents speak a marginalized language should theoretically be able to pick up that language from their parents while still learning the dominant language. After all, aren’t proponents of early bilingual education always telling us children’s brains are perfectly poised to learn two or more languages? That, in fact, if someone’s going to learn a new language, doing it early is best? If that’s the case, kids faced with the task of growing up bilingual should have an easier time of it than…well, me, for instance.

Part of the problem with dying languages, though, is not just that people are learning new languages but that they aren’t showing as much interest in the old ones. UNESCO’s list of criteria cites “response to new domains and media” and “community members’ attitudes toward their own language” as factors that can play a role in language endangerment.

Russ Rymer, freelance writer for National Geographic, explains it well.

“Parents in tribal villages often encourage their children to move away from the insular language of their forebears and toward languages that will permit greater education and success,” Rymer wrote. “The arrival of television, with its glamorized global materialism, is even more irresistible. Prosperity, it seems, speaks English.”

The reasons for abandoning a language in this way are complicated, but what it boils down to is that one language is considered more valuable than another.

Knowing a language that’s spoken by a large number of people is, of course, useful. That being said, it may be tempting to categorize the deaths of smaller languages as a moving-on from older ways to new—part of the ineffable march of progress.

In reality, however, the death of a language is a catastrophic loss.

Not all languages are created equal. I touched on this idea in my last post when I illustrated the difficulties involved in accurately translating one language to another in terms of words that don’t carry over and expressions that aren’t the same. Each language has a distinct character and evolved from a different set of cultural necessities.

The idea of the Inuit having many words for snow may have been exaggerated, but it illustrates how cultures may develop unusually precise language in some areas while being seemingly imprecise in others. The Pirahã language has very few words that describe time, lacking such expressions as “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” This doesn’t reflect a lesser understanding but rather a culture that doesn’t deal in abstractions. These are just two examples of how and why languages differ.

I started my research for this post by Googling “endangered languages.” Predictably, the first result that came up was When I clicked the link, I was greeted by a masthead that read “The world through 3206 lenses.” I became emotional because I know it’s true. Every language reflects a different culture and represents a different way of looking at the world. The fact that one dies every other week is shocking. My fellow English-speakers will take to social media in righteous indignation over an endangered dolphin or tiger. Where’s the movement to save the dying languages?

Some cultures, like the Pirahã people, tend to keep their ancestral languages and refuse to adopt the dominant languages around them. Other cultures are more open to adopting languages that allow them to communicate with outsiders. This is a noble pursuit, and they should be supported. But for goodness sake, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Learning two or more languages allows people to connect with the larger world while preserving their heritage. Trading one’s ancestral language for English as if languages were used cars isn’t modern or progressive. It’s a waste.

I don’t want to pass judgment on marginalized groups or individuals who willingly switch over to a dominant language because, like I said, it’s complicated. But the global society has a responsibility to remove pressure from these people to abandon their own languages. That means celebrating different languages while acknowledging that complete official inclusion isn’t possible.

It wouldn’t be practical for the U.S. government to publish official documents in the 311 languages spoken in the country, but neither would it be reasonable to expect the descendants of the Native Americans who were here first to just speak English like good American monolinguals and be done with it. Bilingualism, not selective monolingualism, is the answer.

Follow Sam Hankins on Twitter at @VerbsEverywhere


From Google Translate to TARDIS Translate: Can automatic translation replace language learning? Part 2 of 2

The question I presented last time was whether it might be possible for technologies like Google Translate to one day provide users with completely accurate translations. I think we’re a long way off to say the least, and a closer look at that passage from “La noche boca arriba” can provide some sense of just how far away we are:

A mitad del largo zaguán del hotel pensó que debía ser tarde y se apuró a salir a la calle y sacar la motocicleta del rincón donde el portero de al lado le permitía guardarla. En la joyería de la esquina vio que eran las nueve menos diez; llegaría con tiempo sobrado adonde iba. 

And the Google Translate version:

Halfway through the long hallway of the hotel thought it would be late and hurried to go out and take the motorcycle from the corner where the goalkeeper next allowed him to save it. In jewelry corner I saw it was ten to nine; arrive with plenty of time where I was going.

It’s easy to see this translation isn’t accurate, but what kinds of changes would have to be made to the program to fix it? First, there's the goalkeeper/doorman mix up. In order to correctly translate the word portero, a program would have to take into account the context in which it was used, perhaps by scanning the surrounding text for keywords like hotel. The program would also have to deal with trickier multi-meaning words such as guardarla, which can mean to keep it or to store it as well as to save it (what context clues do you use for that kind of a distinction?). The verb tenses and voice are a more persistent problem. I don't know how or why the algorithm translated llegaría as arrive rather than he would arrive, but the sooner some programmer figures that out, the sooner we will all lead much less confusing lives.

Picking apart the little things is all very well, but an example of a problem that is both much simpler and much more complex can be found at the very beginning of the English text: Halfway through the long hallway of the hotel. No native English-speaker would say the long hallway of the hotel. This is technically a more accurate translation than pretty much anything else in the passage, but it doesn't sound right. Even a skilled translator would have to be very careful to word the English sentence in a way that conveys the length of the hallway and still seems natural.

Translators and language teachers can sleep easy. For now, perfect automatic translation is pure science fiction. In fact, in a bizarre roundabout kind of way, Doctor Who's translation matrix suddenly seems like the more reasonable option. Why? It's psychic, meaning it bases translations directly on the speaker's original intent according to his or her thoughts. Rather than splitting hairs trying to figure out why the heck a goalie is watching someone's motorcycle in a hotel, you hear the word doorman in the first place because when Cortázar said portero, he was thinking about a doorman.

This is in line with the linguistic theory of a "language of thought," sometimes called "mentalese," that exists in the mind, independent of the written or spoken word. The idea is that before thoughts are put into words, they exist in a mentalese form common to all humans regardless of native language.

Professor Steven Pinker, a proponent of the theory, explains it by saying that “speaking is almost like translating mentalese into English or Japanese, and understanding is almost like translating English or Japanese into mentalese, depending, of course, on which language you actually speak.”

Every human "speaks" mentalese, and being able to communicate it to other people would effectively remove the language barriers between us. Unfortunately, because mentalese only exists as a mental process (and a theoretical mental process at that) and not a true language, a fictional psychic translator is needed to tap into its power.

Google Translate doesn’t offer nearly that level of accuracy, so Tumblr users getting antsy about the new scan-and-read tech can quit worrying about it being a quick fix for people “too lazy” to learn another language. Not only that, but there's a difference between knowing what something means in your own language and actually understanding it as a native speaker would understand it. What I mean is reading the Spanish word perro and thinking dog isn't the same as reading perro and thinking immediately of the furry, four-legged animal without bothering with the English word dog at all. In other words, both dog and perro are equally associated with the mentalese meaning, the true intent of the word.

This kind of comprehension takes a lot of practice, but even beginning language students notice themselves mentally skipping over translations of common phrases (think me gusta) to cut right to their meaning. Developing this ability is simply a matter of practicing the language more and more until every phrase is a "common" phrase. This also explains why some bilinguals dream in their second language. If someone comprehends two different languages at an equal level rather than having to mentally translate one into the other, then one will serve just as well as the other when the brain is alone in a dream.

All of this falls under the umbrella term of “functioning” in another language, which does not include reading translated text. If you’re reading something that’s been translated into English, you’re reading English. Doesn’t matter if it was originally Spanish, German, Portuguese, ancient Greek, whatever—it’s just as English as an episode of Doctor Who. When the people on Doctor Who hear stuff in languages they don’t speak, not only do they hear it in English, but they’re not consciously aware that they’re hearing anything other than English spoken in a neutral BBC accent. It’s all very convenient for travel reasons, but at the end of the day you don’t know any more about other languages than if you’d stayed at home and sworn off time travel altogether.

So even if translation technology were to reach the levels we see in science fiction, it wouldn’t truly replace language learning. A person using a translator to understand another language isn’t functioning in that language. And here’s the kicker: Does that really make a difference? I think the answer is yes. Call me a backward technophobe if you want, but I really do think you lose something when you translate into another language. You lose the sound and the cadence of the original words. You lose things that don’t translate one-to-one, like idiomatic expressions in other languages or words that exist in one language and not another (that Danish word for “happiness at work” that was making the rounds on Facebook the other day is one example). You lose the chance to hear the speaker’s words more exactly as he or she intended them. Of course I agree translation is a useful and necessary tool. Without translation I never would have read my favorite short story, The Metamorphosis, because this girl does not speak a word of German. Still, receiving information in its original language is generally a much richer experience.

Either way, bilinguals will be needed to bridge linguistic boundaries for the foreseeable future. Automatic translation is pretty impressive, but it won’t come close to replacing human translators for a long, long time. Until then, try flagging down the nearest TARDIS, or grab a Babel fish.

Follow Sam Hankins on Twitter @VerbsEverywhere


From Google Translate to TARDIS Translate: Can automatic translation replace language learning? Part 1 of 2

Traveling outside the U.S. can be a hassle if you don't speak the local language, and it can be an even bigger hassle if your travel agenda includes all of time and space. Fortunately, the characters on the BBC show Doctor Who have a way around this.

One of the show's conceits is that the TARDIS time-and-space machine is equipped with a psychic “translation matrix.” This allows the characters to speak and understand the local language of any place they visit. The Babel fish in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy works in a similar way. Just stick the little yellow fish in your ear (yuck!) and you can understand anything said in any language.

This may seem like a silly idea that could only be accepted in the world of soft science fiction, but it was enough for one translation website to be named And it raises an interesting question: Will technology like this ever exist in real life?

Psychic translation may be better left to Time Lords, but understanding other languages is becoming much easier thanks to new technology. In January, Google added a new feature to Google Translate—that tool high school language teachers love to hate—called Word Lens. This new technology allows users to translate texts simply by scanning them with a smartphone. A GIF has been making the rounds on Tumblr that dramatically demonstrates the new technology's ability to translate a street sign from Russian to English. Some users condemned Word Lens as promoting laziness in language learning. Others defended it by saying it could come in handy for brief visits to places where other languages are spoken. But before we get too bogged down in the morality of modern technology, I want take a moment to talk about automatic translation and how it works.

In an ideal setting, translation is performed by a person who speaks two or more languages fluently and is able to easily find equivalents of words or phrases in one language or another. Failing that, however, programs like Google Translate use algorithms to translate text to another language. When I say "algorithms," I mean the same kind of technology behind Microsoft Word's grammar checker. You know how Microsoft Word is always telling you to put commas and semicolons in places that very much do not need commas or semicolons? Yeah.

Most students who have studied a foreign language at some point have had a teacher or professor tell them very emphatically not to use Google Translate. Not just because teachers are sadists who love watching English-speakers struggle to write French essays on "What I Did Over Winter Break." The fact is while automatic translation technology is getting better all the time, if you're using Google Translate to write an essay, you deserve to be lied to. However, our elders and betters might have been a little overzealous in condemning translation programs. Google Translate seems a lot more useful if you consider that its primary purpose is not to perfectly translate foreign text but to make it understandable.

For example, let's look at the beginning of "La noche boca arriba" by Julio Cortázar:

A mitad del largo zaguán del hotel pensó que debía ser tarde y se apuró a salir a la calle y sacar la motocicleta del rincón donde el portero de al lado le permitía guardarla. En la joyería de la esquina vio que eran las nueve menos diez; llegaría con tiempo sobrado adonde iba. 

Let's assume for a moment that I don't understand Spanish and I have no idea what this says. Let's also assume I don't have ready access to an English/Spanish bilingual who can translate this for me (and keep in mind being bilingual is not necessarily a guarantee of translation skills). My best bet to figure out what it says, therefore, is to put it into Google Translate, which yields the following: 

Halfway through the long hallway of the hotel thought it would be late and hurried to go out and take the motorcycle from the corner where the goalkeeper next allowed him to save it. In jewelry corner I saw it was ten to nine; arrive with plenty of time where I was going.

Obviously there are several problems with this translation. The ambiguity of some verb tenses in Spanish accounts for the improper shift to the first person, and a goalkeeper working in a hotel definitely seems wrong (a quick visit to reveals that portero can mean porter or doorman as well as goalkeeper). However, even having this rough translation is better than staring at a block of unintelligible foreign text. As long as you understand its limits and are using it for the right things, Google Translate can be pretty useful.

The real question here is whether this technology will ever be able to provide perfectly accurate translations—the written equivalent of having a Babel fish in your ear, if you will. It would be a language instructor's worst nightmare, and it would put a lot of good translators (many of whom are currently being paid handsomely for their skills) out of work. But by making communication between cultures that much easier, it just might be a great help in promoting unity among the human race.

I’ll tackle that question in Part 2, but I’ll leave you with one piece of advice. Don’t drop your French class just yet.

Follow Sam Hankins on Twitter @VerbsEverywhere


Welcome to Found in Translation 

When the Ed board was first asked to come up with blog ideas, I spent a long time thinking about mine, since I knew I was going to be stuck with whatever I chose for the rest of the semester. In the end, I lucked out. I hit on an idea that is interesting to me, that I’m sure will be interesting to a wide audience and that offers a pretty rich array of potential topics. Unfortunately, Quixem had already called dibs on TV, so I had to settle.

Joking aside, why learn about bilingualism? It’s a popular topic among college kids, as most of us are willing to voice our opinions on the sorry state of foreign language education in the U.S. as well as the apparently rampant monolingualism in our country—and believe me, I will be writing about all that later. More to the point, a lot of students at Texas State take foreign language classes as part of major or minor requirements or, at the very least, have studied a foreign language in high school. Collectively, our experience ranges from brushes with other languages to complete mental commitment, even if it is only commitment to making a C on that vocab test.

When I spent this past summer studying in Buenos Aires, I acquired a special interest in the ways people communicate when they don’t share a first language. Between experiences such as working in an office where English and Spanish were required and joining an English/Spanish/French-speaking family for an asado, I started to realize that awareness of language adds a rich dimension to social activity. And I realized that, yes, maybe being an English/Spanish major held more for me than passing tests and reading really trippy short stories (I’m looking at you, Julio Cortázar).

My plan for this blog is to share some of my own thoughts and knowledge on bilingualism, language learning and related topics. Mostly I want it to be a fun way for people (myself included) to learn new things and maybe look at language in a new light.

Hop aboard and all that jazz. I can’t wait to get started.