In the years after the United States entered World War I, states across the country banned German-language instruction or even all foreign languages in public schools. The practice continued until the Supreme Court declared it illegal in 1923, five years after the war's end.
In Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, many Latinos over the age of 50 can tell personal stories about the school punishments they experienced after they were "caught" speaking Spanish as recently as the 1970s. Just last year, a Texas school principal lost her job after attempting to do something similar.
And during last week's Republican debate, two candidates who speak both English and Spanish fluently felt compelled to defend or explain their use of Spanish on the campaign trail. The reason: The week prior, GOP front-runner Donald Trump had advised Jeb Bush to use English because this is the United States.
Americans have been known to see language and the ubiquity of English as an expressive form of dominance, the will to assimilate and, somewhat more mysteriously, the power to shape the world.
So, this should come as no surprise. America today ranks far behind many of the world's other countries -- those with advanced economies, those which are developing and even some that only wish to be -- in the share of the population which can speak more than one language. In 2014, just fewer than 79 percent of Americans spoke no other language than English, according to the Census.
For his part Pope Francis, who reportedly speaks some English but is more comfortable using his native Spanish, has mastered Italian (both his parents were Italian-Argentinians) and Latin and reportedly has a strong command of French and German. If you haven't done the math yet based on that figure up above, in the United States, a paltry 21 percent of Americans age 5 or older can boast of speaking even one other language. And that's up from the 18 percent of Americans who spoke a second language in 2000. Now, in fairness, some people think that America's demographers are too hard on Americans, failing to give sufficient credit to those of us who speak a second language but do so infrequently.
For comparison, consider Europe. In the countries that comprise the European Union, a full 54 percent of adults can speak at least two languages fluently, with English ranking among them for just less than 40 percent, according to a 2012 EU Commission report. On the downside, EU researchers also found that adults in the United Kingdom and Ireland reported the lowest rates of speaking additional languages in the entire region. Clearly, English-language obstinacy is not just an American thing.
Now, before anyone takes shelter behind the most common American reason for going English-only -- mastery of said language and ease of communication -- be sure to note this. A majority of bilingual Americans also report speaking English "well" or "very well." To get a visual sense of that, check out this interactive map created by the Census Bureau. Click though the options and watch the map change as you examine the list of the most common second languages spoken in the United States and what share of those individuals report being unable to speak English.
For example, Spanish, the most common language other than English spoken in the United States, is a tongue that some 39.2 million Americans reported being able to speak in 2014 (see Map 1 below).
Of these, 22.8 million also reported speaking English "very well," and a smaller group -- 16. 3 million -- put themselves in the "speak English less than very well" category. (See Map 2 below.) Take a close look at the difference between Maps 1 and 2. There just isn't the crisis of English language use and appreciation that some people claim. (Again, to see where and how other languages are used in the United States, visit the Census Bureau's interactive map here.)
What those maps do tell us is that the United States's low standing on the global multilingualism scale would be even worse if it were not for the large and growing share of the population that speaks both Spanish and English.
Understood that way, the ability of candidates like former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to communicate in both languages not only makes strategic sense but might be a real advantage. That's basically what Rubio said in the debate last week. Why else would the pope, unquestionably one of the most influential religious figures in the world -- who already speaks several languages -- have spent the last few months reportedly brushing up on his English?
And if that doesn't make you nervous about being monolingual, or even close to it, consider this: Only about 7 percent of all the world's inhabitants speak English as their primary language, according to a 2012 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report, and less than 5 percent of the world describes English as their native tongue.
Foreign language tapes anyone?