Is Monolingualism the Illiteracy of the 21st Century? Posted by on Aug 4, 2014 in Archived Posts


I came across a Gregg Roberts quote that said “Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 20th century”, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I’m not quite sure who Gregg Roberts is (though a quick Google search associates him with a World Language Specialist for the Utah Department of Education), but he makes a striking comparison. Is monolingual the illiteracy of the 21st century?

My immediate answer would be no. Illiteracy is still the illiteracy of the 21st century—according to a 2003 study “National Assessment of Adult Literacy” by the National Center for Educational Statistics, 14% of adults in the U.S. displayed “below basic” literacy levels. Scariest of all? That number was virtually the same as the rate found in the 1992 version of the same study, meaning literacy rates remained unchanged over that 10 year period. (Hopefully there will be another study out soon that covers the most recent decade, so we can compare!) Clearly, illiteracy is still a fundamental problem in the American education system (let’s not even get started on the global scale of illiteracy).

On the other hand, the comparison is fair, and I would even say it’s necessary. No, monolingualism is not the “new” illiteracy. It’s an entirely separate, but equally important, problem. Everyone recognizes the significance of being able to read and write. Unfortunately, speaking a foreign language doesn’t receive the same clout. Roberts’ quote does exactly that—it shows just how much of a problem monolingualism really is in today’s society. Many Americans rely on others to speak our language (English), but as the world becomes increasingly connected, that will become more and more of a handicap.

That’s why I love what Roberts has to say. We need to realize that it’s in our best interests (in terms of politics, security, business, and even our health) to strive for a more multilingual society. The first step is admitting the problem, right?

And it is a problem, just like illiteracy. The ability to read and write underscores many of our daily functions—how many e-mails have you sent, how many news articles, street signs, or text messages have you read, in the last 24 hours? Being highly literate is paramount to succeeding in modern society. As we trend towards a more globalized, interconnected world, even within our own borders, we’ll soon be able to say the same about reading and writing in a foreign language.

What do you think? Is monolingualism comparable to illiteracy? 

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About the Author: meaghan

Meaghan is the Marketing Communications Manager at Transparent Language. She speaks enough French and Spanish to survive, and remembers enough Hausa to say "Hello my name is Meaghan, I'm studying Hausa." (But sadly that's it).


  1. Marie:

    I do not think that monolingualism is the new illiteracy, especially when so many people still cannot read or write at a basic level. I researched illiteracy once for a college class and it was really eye-opening just how many people in highly developed countries were considered illiterate. These studies included the percentage of immigrants and individuals with disabilities, and they hardly accounted for the overall percentage of people who cannot read or write.

    After reading these studies, I don’t know that illiteracy really has a large impact on people learning another language, especially when comparing Americans to Europeans. Their illiteracy rates are very similar, yet I notice a difference in attitudes towards learning another language.

  2. Fred Williams:

    Unlike European countries that have boundries of neighboring nations side by side, the U.S. is one nation from sea to shining sea. The perceived need for another language is nil. It is not uncommon for a Swiss citizen to speak French, Italian and perhaps a smattering of German in addition to English and their own dialect.

    • chuck johnson:

      @Fred Williams But there’s Montreal to the north and Mexico to the south. It becomes essential to know some Spanish in a state like Florida and (oddly) Wisconsin where in the past ten years a huge influx of people from Mexico have moved. Iowa is filled with Spanish speakers too. I don’t know that much Spanish but my kids do – they seem to think it is important to know.

    • Rosie:

      @Fred Williams Really, Fred? Where in the US do you live? Who are your friends? In Chicago, DC, Los Angeles, Miami, even Houston,just to name a few, speaking a second language is like a second nature. If you live in Wyoming, your “perceived need” might be very different from that in these cities. The US shares 2,000 miles of border with Mexico. There should be a “perceived need” to at least learn Spanish in all Southern border states.

    • peter ginsberg:

      @Fred Williams In many parts of the country what you posit is true but for residents of South Florida, Texas and California, the need
      to speak Spanish is becoming a necessity.

  3. Manticore Fitzgibbon:

    This is interesting and sort of well-intentioned. It does go over the old shibboleth of “we really ought to stop expecting the world to speak English” , which , on the face of it , is fair enough , until you consider that there are all sorts if geopolitical , social , technological and historical reasons for the current global dominance of English. That’s just a fact , uncomfortable as it may be for many. The consolation ( if that’s what it is) is in the word “current”. Should I live to be 150 -odd , I expect to have no problems with living in a sinophone or hispanophone world.In fact , bring it on. It’s nice that language can’t be tamed.

  4. Michael Hawkes:

    Perhaps a better analogy would be compare multilingualism to a high-school diploma. While it’s probably possible to get a job without a diploma, having one is expected by most employers. In the future, I imagine being monolingual will be the equivalent of being a high school dropout. Farther in the future, it is more likely to be expected or required either by employers, or just to survive.

  5. Lina:

    While I champion learning foreign languages and it is something I thoroughly enjoy doing myself, monolingualism is not a new concept at all. It is what the term ‘lingua franca’ was developed for. Latin and Greek in the past have been the most commonly spoken languages, so when people met, even if they spoke other languages or just one of those, it was the lingua franca that was spoken to ensure everyone would understand. English is the current lingua franca, though that won’t last forever and it would be short-sighted and complacent to assume it will.
    However, I wholeheartedly agree that there should be more emphasis on learning other languages, as it makes connecting with people so much easier and feels more genuine than trying to plod on through in English. People appreciate you making an effort in their language as they have with yours.

  6. Eric Fang:

    Very much so and I believe all of our young generations here in the United States should have minimum bilingual skill and we have a program to basically promote the mobile way of simple language learning via translation and communication with every phone regardless if it is a smart phone or not!

  7. Damon Green:

    I would rephrase that as “monolingualism is the illiteracy of many 21st century ‘professionals’ in the United States of America.”

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