Is Monolingualism the Illiteracy of the 21st Century? Posted by meaghan 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?