Like it or not, there’s a class system when it comes to languages. Some languages are given higher social status than others, and that enhanced status tends to favor their promotion within that society. In societies that are multilingual, the relative status of a language really impacts on how it thrives over the long term.
Although Spanish is often taught in American schools, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of Americans refusing to learn it because they see it as a lower-class language. Instead, aspirational languages include French or Italian, seen as languages of romance and culture.
It’s also common for immigrant parents to encourage their own children to speak the language of the country of destination, as opposed to valuing their own native tongue. As a consequence of this language classism, Spanish language skills don’t continue to thrive through immigrant generations in the U.S.
Popular music in the U.S. also illustrates how other languages aren’t always considered cool. Pop diva Céline Dion continues to release albums in her native French language, but these never chart in the U.S., unlike her top-grossing English-language albums. Despite being released by the same singer with the same pop standards, these French albums simply hold no appeal for American audiences.
English has universal high status
English is a language that’s almost universally high-status. It’s fairly unusual for a language to have a worldwide social cachet, but English achieves this across a large number of territories. Generally, a language’s relative status tends to be more regional – but then most languages are fairly regional in their spread.
Take additive bilingualism. Although the Chinese languages of Mandarin and Cantonese are one of the top languages spoken in the U.S., native English speakers are not expected to give up their own language to communicate with these speakers, although they may choose to learn the language to add it to their cannon.
Compare this with American speakers of Arabic, Tagalog, or even Spanish, who are expected to swap their existing language for the higher-status English one.
This is an example of subtractive bilingualism – being asked to replace an existing language with a different one that’s considered to be of higher status. When this type of practice is common, languages that are lower on the pecking order tend to struggle to thrive.
It’s common for speakers to undervalue their own language, and these languages often aren’t retained across generations.
Although many parts of the U.S. may be considered bilingual, since a great many locals communicate in Spanish, the language ‘class system’ means that the policy of additive bilingualism only really applies to high-status language.
A similar phenomenon can be found in the UK. Although Polish recently became the second largest minority language there, second only to Welsh in terms of the number of speakers, it has not been elevated to a high-status language.
Simply by virtue of the number of speakers, it’s arguably a significant language in the UK. But there’s very little support for Polish in mainstream education and speakers are encouraged to switch to English as soon as they can. Meanwhile, languages such as French are given much higher priority in mainstream education despite being spoken by a smaller language minority.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a number of efforts afoot to encourage minority languages like Spanish, Mandarin, or Cantonese in U.S. schools. Many public and private schools as well as after-school and weekend programs offer language instruction to help ensure students maintain and enhance their understanding of their parents’ language.
Yet the American Association of University Professors has written that “We are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates, and recent draconian cuts to language teaching in colleges and universities are exacerbating an already serious problem.” They warn that either the U.S. must open itself up to diversity of language else limit itself to a narrowly normative culture.
Furthermore, Native American languages like Tlingit, Choctaw, and Navajo were on the way to being wiped out due to decades of forcing Native students to attend boarding schools that taught only in English. Today, podcasts, apps, and language classes taught by Native speakers are trying to curb the trend and further these languages, but such classes are not part of a typical American-school curriculum.
Offering accredited courses in minority languages is one expression of additive bilingualism and a recognition that languages have value, even if they are lower down the social pecking order. But it’s hard to fight against dominant languages when they are considered of higher status.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the U.S. is generally so poor at valuing other languages. The high status of English around the globe reinforces its dominance where English is the native language. Unlike European countries like the Netherlands or Switzerland, with more than one official national language, English alone dominates in the U.S.
It’s tough for other languages to compete in the ferocious class system of languages. Where English dominates, other languages find it particularly hard to compete for survival.