Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Why It’s Strange That Everybody in the United States Speaks English

By: Inoljt,

Imagine you’re a tourist planning on visiting India. Determined not to be seen as culturally ignorant, you’ve decided to learn Hindi, the official language. As the plane lands in Bangalore, you are confident that you can speak in the native language.

Except when you get out onto the street, the people aren’t speaking Hindi. They’re talking in a dialect of Kannada, and you can’t understand them.

Eventually, after several painstaking months, you learn Kannada as spoken in Bangalore. Now you’re really confident that you’ve got this thing down; you know both Hindi and a very local dialect of another Indian language. You fly to Mumbai.

Except in Mumbai the people on the street don’t speak Kannada, Hindi, or English. They speak Marathi. And a fair share of the elite speak English.

Might as well have stayed with English.


More below.

Or imagine you’re visiting China. Once again, as a culturally competent individual you’ve mastered Mandarin, and blast into Shanghai completely prepared.

In Shanghai, however, it turns out that the local language is Shanghainese. You didn’t even know that existed, but when local residents talk to each other you don’t understand any of it.

A local friend you’ve made later, born and bred in Shanghai, confides to you that he feels uncomfortable going to other provinces. In Guangdong locals speak in Cantonese; in Sichuan they speak in Sichuanese; in Tibet they speak in Tibetan; he can’t understand any of it. True, locals can switch to standard Mandarin when talking with non-locals, but he still feels like a foreigner outside Shanghai.

The next day you board a plane back to the United States, where everybody understands and speaks the same exact language. Every word that a person says in Seattle can be comprehended by a person in Houston; every word that a person says in Houston can be comprehended by a New Yorker. With the exception of the South and a few inner-city ghettos, there is even no difference in accent.

This achievement is frequently understated. Many Americans simply assume that things are like this in other countries – everybody in the Middle East speaks Arabic (true, but the regional dialects are mutually incomprehensible), everybody in Nigeria speaks “Nigerian” (definitely not true).

In truth, as the examples of China and India show, it is actually quite strange to think that in a continent-stretching nation with hundreds of millions (or billions) of people, it would be the case that the language would be so uniform. Few countries can claim to have done this. Brazil is one. Russia is another – but remember that Russia is the descendant of the Soviet Union, which tried and failed to impose a Russian common language upon the tens of millions of its non-Russian citizens.

Some conservatives complain that nowadays, there are too many Mexicans who don’t know English. Yet of the Hispanic immigrants who enter the United States, only 6% of their grandchildren will speak Spanish at home.

The extent to which the United States has succeeded in establishing a common language, across a continent and through three hundred million people, remains an amazing, if much-ignored, accomplishment.


  1. IL JimP

    for example they “generally speaking” speak English in England, french in France, Spanish in Spain, Italian in Italy, German in Germany, etc.

  2. …European countries developed a system of political organisation based on the nation state. Sometimes that collided with a single ethnic identity, but it invariably revolved around cultural norms like language and law.

    India has, essentially, a cultural and religious identity much larger than any single state. It is more like a civilisation. If you’re going to compare India to anything (and I lived there for a year) with dozens of different scripts and hundreds of languages (and a least four modern states dividing up its ancient civilisation) you’d do better comparing it to ‘Europe’ or ‘Africa’.

    China is the other fascinating comparison, a country as equally as vast (though not as heterogenous) which has achieved a remarkable amount of uniformity and cultural homogeneity over the last two millennia.

    Some of the ways it achieved this, however, were no much better than the ways Hitler and Stalin managed to enforce ethnic segregation and uniformity in central Europe

  3. Steve M

    I would imagine it has a lot to do with the fact that we’re a relatively young nation.  A city in China might have been there for centuries, going back to a time when the native population didn’t move around much.  Also, somehow I was reminded of this post:

    My mother made our house in Harare an English-speaking house. I recall when requesting that we speak some Shona so that I could increase my vocabulary (I also attended an English-speaking school), my mother saying: “Shona is going nowhere. So, if you want to go nowhere, if you want to be stuck in this country, learn all the Shona you want. I would prefer we speak Chinese in this house before we speak that useless language.” I hid many of my mother’s opinion about Shona and African men (“whatever you do Charles, do not become one of them; they only wake up when it’s time to slow a woman down”) from my close friends.

    As you can imagine, my mother left me with a major complex.

    Anyway, all of this came to my mind when I noticed the number of Wikipedia entries for English was approaching 4 million and the number of entries for Shona only managed to pass 100.

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