Welcome-to-the-USI know some people think what I am doing with my daughters – speaking German to them one-hundred percent of  the time even though German is a second language for me – is “extreme”.

Since the very beginning, I’ve been very strict in terms of our one parent, one language policy. I haven’t ever spoken English with my children, one of whom is 7, and the other of whom is 5. Our daughters also watch only German-language DVDs and German-language TV – which we stream over the Internet (I’m so grateful for the Internet, something which essentially wasn’t there just one generation ago).

I stick to speaking German with my daughters one-hundred percent of the time, in every context, whether it is at the dinner table, where they are speaking English to my wife, the playground, where they’re speaking English to playmates (we often translate from German into English for my wife and others), or, at the grocery store where I am going shopping with them.

Language immersion
We’re also sending our daughters to the Colorado International School, a private language immersion school in Denver, Colorado – and this is costing us quite a bit of money. Some people also see this as “extreme”.

In fact, what’s truly extreme is American society’s single-minded determination to create – one might more accurately say impose — a monolingual society.

Indeed, it is American society’s extreme commitment to monolingualism – a commitment unfortunately shared by most “modern” nation states — that has forced me to be so “extreme” in our quest to raise our daughters as actually practicing multilinguals.

Nowhere is America’s extreme dedication to monolingual living more apparent, or more problematic, than in the public education system. There, you will encounter virtually no language teaching and learning until children are 12 years old. And then, “foreign” languages will typically only be offered as a subject, not as a medium of instruction.

Assimilation to monolingual ideal
Indeed, the goal of the American public education system appears to be decidedly anti-multilingual, with the focus almost exclusively on assimilating multilingual individuals to the monolingual model.

With some exceptions – according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a little over 400 out of thousands of public schools in the U.S. offer either partial, full or dual-language immersion – in the American public education system, you’ll encounter no languages other than English being taught as a subject, much less being used as a medium to teach America’s children.

Instead, you’ll find monolingualism – to the extreme. Sadly, this monolingual practice – and the expectation that it is the way to do things — gets carried into most other social domains in the U.S.

No other languages other than English are regularly used in power domains such as politics, business, technology and, of course, higher education. In fact, I do not know of a single college or university in the U.S. that offers multiple university level courses in subjects such as history, geology, biology, journalism, etc. through a linguistic medium other than English, much less an opportunity to acquire a four-year degree by taking such courses.

So, who, or what, is it, exactly, that’s “extreme” – me and the approach I’m taking in order to raise our daughters as meaningful German-English bilinguals (it truly has been a struggle, though, happily a successful one so far)  – or America’s dogged determination to ensure that monolingual practice dominates in virtually all facets and domains of society?

Author Christof Demont-Heinrich

A lifelong interest in language and writing motivated in large part by a desire to learn my father's mother tongue, German, has played a large role in my professional and educational trajectory. I spent my junior year of college studying in Freiburg, Germany. After graduating from Allegheny College with a B.A. in German, I worked as a print journalist for eight years in the Boston area. I moved to Colorado in August of 1996 so that I could attend Colorado State University where I earned an M.A. in English (1998). After a couple years of working as an adjunct faculty member at CSU and the University of Northern Colorado, I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the fall of 2000. I completed my dissertation in December of 2005. I started a tenure-track position at the University of Denver in the fall of 2005 where I am now an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies. My general research interests are in linguistic and cultural dimensions of globalization, transnational and national identity, and the relation between media discourse and hegemony.

More posts by Christof Demont-Heinrich
  • Kay B. Meyer

    My compliments on your article and your approach. Your title should grab some interest of the people who most need to hear your message!

  • Dominick

    I fundamentally disagree with this article. I believe the author is vastly generalizing his arguments in order to create a perceived mass prejudice. A few multilingually ignorant people does not make “a nation of monolingual enforcers.” These people exist in every country, not just the USA. I know people in Italy who are ostracized for “daring” to speak English instead of Italian to their kids in public. As for “academic suppression”: I went to public school, we had the option of learning Spanish or French from 8th grade on, and in fact were encouraged, as we were lead to believe that you needed at least 2 years of a foreign language to get into college. His claim that “No other languages other than English are regularly used in power domains such as politics, business, technology and, of course, higher education” is also bunk, every legal form you have to fill out has Spanish and even French versions of it, there are even government funded political radio stations in Spanish.

  • Dominick

    If the author is claiming that “no political debates take place in any language other than English”, well duh. Political debates in France only ever take place in French as well. In the United States of America, people have a choice of how they want to raise their children, if people want their kids to grow up monolingual, that’s their choice. I choose to raise my children bilingual, its an advantage I am giving them, not an “extremist” political stance. Mitt Romny, the likely GOP candidate for the next presidential elections, speaks fluent French.

  • Thanks, Christof. I agree completely that Americans need to pay more attention to other languages. You and your readers may be interested to hear about an exchange program called En Famille International, which arranges language immersion exchanges for children ages 9-16 between English-speaking countries and France, Germany, and Spain. Two children are paired for an entire year together: 6 months in one country and 6 months in the other. My two American daughters participated at the ages of 9 and 10. They spoke no French at all before they went to France and returned completely bilingual in French. They also had amazing cultural experiences and now have lifelong bonds in France. I’m the Colorado representative for En Famille and I’d love to speak with you; please feel free to email me. Our website is http://www.enfamille.com; you can also find us on Facebook by searching “En Famille International.” We’ve had some interesting posts recently from some of our German families on Facebook!

  • khan

    Extremely enlightening post exposing/ questioning the latent reified language ideology and practice largely the reflection of monolingual mindset (Ingrid, 2010). I would like to interpret the issue through with the lens Continue of Biliteracy ( Hornberger, 2003; Hornberger & Skilton-Sylvester, 2000) which actually allow us to see different facets of literacy acquisition and use in multilingual contexts and to identify the ways in which these facets are interrelated. One language is being given as a solution to the demands of multilingual world. The dominant impression emerging from such ideology is that it is natural, common sense to speak English across the globe. Let’s say we accept that we all need to have a common language i.e English but would that mean forcing people to conform to the norm by creating situations which actually make all thoughts impossible in any other language. Informed reader will hear the echoes of Orwell 1984 here. The reality on the other hand is so very well captured by an old Indian proverb comes from memory straight away; it roughly says something like this ‘ Every forty miles water changes, every forty yards language’
    What we find in decade long empirical evidence documented from different parts of the world is the fact that linguistic practices especially institutionalized discourses result in privileging particular languages, particular literacy resources ( media) and particular ways of reading, writing and using texts ( context and content) ( Martin-Jones, 2011). I think we have now sufficient evidences allowing us to see language not as ahistorical, apolitical social practice!
    Christoff post is an excellent example which opens up discursive space for reflecting on many of the myths associated with monolingual mindset. Thanks very much

    Piller, I. Monolingual mindset in the lucky country. February, 3, 2010. Language on the move.

    Hornberger, N. H. ( 2003) Continua of Biliteracy: An Ecological Framework for Educational Policy, Research and Practice in Multilingual Settings. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
    Hornberger, N. H. and Skilton-Sylvester, E. (2000) Revisiting the continua of biliteracy: international and critical practices. Language and Education 14 (2), 96-122.
    Martin-Jones, M. (2011) Language Policies, Multilingual Classrooms: Resonances across Continents. ( ed. Hult and King) Educational Linguistics in Practice: Applying the local globally and the global locally. Tornonto. Multilingual Matters

  • Victoria Benz

    Unfortunately, it’s the same in Australia. In Sydney (4.5 million), there are two possibilities to attend a school with German as a medium of instruction (similar for other languages), one of which is approximately 30km away from the CBD – not to mention traffic, tolls etc. to get there. In my research I’m looking at mono- and pluralingual parents and their aspirations in terms of their child’s language education. As far as I can say at this point, monolingual English speaking parents are generally interested in attending bilingual schools and would choose those if they were similarly accessible, of similar quality and for free… As this is not the case, Australia will continue to produce a monolingual society. If the state is extreme in its monolingual approach, so has to be the individual in its bilingual approach having to move nearby the school, drive for hours every day, pay those tuition fees or alternative support options. And THAT will only work for a few individuals…

  • I appreciate your comments, but I have to say, a few forms with multiple languages doesn’t indicate significant support of multilingualism in power domains, including politics. Notice that I didn’t mention media above. Clearly, of the power domains, media is the most solidly multilingual in the U.S., though English still dominates. Public education is almost entirely carried out in English in the U.S., with a tiny percentage of (dual) language immersion schools. A smattering of foreign languages are introduced in middle/high school and they are taught only as a subject with the majority of students acquiring superficial abilities in those languages. There are simply no places or spaces in power domains where most Americans can use, much less are encouraged to use, a language other than English on a regular basis. To me, this does indeed point to the reality of a nation of “enforcers” of monolingualism, though much of this enforcement is unconscious & therefore largely unacknowledged.

  • khan

    Dear Victoria Benz,

    Thanks for sharing some findings of your study. It is an extemely interesting area that you are working in and I find intersections between your work and mine in terms of parents’ aspiration for their children education. In my study actors especially the elite want to have their children the mastery of two powerful languages in the country: English ( the language of former colonial power) and Urdu ( the state centrist national language) in order to make their children valuable human resource for national institutions as well as transnational, multinationals, UN Backed agencies. I am grappling with the question of who becomes proficeint Bilingual and who does not. The elites i.e less than 2% of current pakistani population have worked out alternative routes/ institutions endwoing their children with right habitus( Bourdieu, 1991), the rest is silence.

  • …whereas monolingualism is increasingly associated with backwardness in the 21st century, turning into a stigmatised ideology and practice in many other parts of the world, particularly Asia. But then, that’s where you see the other type of linguistic extremism – learn English or else!

  • Christof Demont-Heinrich

    Here’s more evidence of the fact that in a country of incredible linguistic diversity and widespread multilingualism, that this multilingualism is typically erased from power domains and English monolingualism enforced, in this case the political and government domain in El Paso, Texas, and relegated to the private domain: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/02/english-official-language-border-bilingual_n_1249307.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

    An excerpt from this article: “But Cook, the mayor of El Paso, says he doesn’t see the point of declaring a language either way. According to Cook, the vast majority of El Paso residents are bilingual in both English and Spanish, switching between the two languages as needed. But, ALL government functions are conducted in English.”

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  • Ron

    I know a native German speaking couple living in the US that speaks only (or at least mainly) German to their kids. Their rationale … if they spoke English their kids would learn ‘funny sounding’ English.

    So you speak to your children only in a non-native language? Whether it’s extreme or not I wouldn’t want to say. It is interesting though.

    We looked at the Denver International School and a public bilingual program as an option for our daughter. We decided against those programs for various reasons. In attending organizational meetings at the schools I noticed there were some parents that apparently so valued their children learning a second language that they were willing to make significant compromises in other aspects of their education. Extreme? That might be a fair characterization.

  • Christof Demont-Heinrich

    Thank you for your comments. Actually, what I find extreme is the extreme monolingualism of the American public education system such that one is forced to potentially make comprises in terms of other aspects of education in order to ensure a multilingual education. Why is it that I “must” be forced to potentially make such sacrifices for my children if I want them to become deep, fully cross-functional multilinguals? The answer: American society doesn’t truly value meaningful multilingualism. If it did, language learning would be a significant part of the whole public education mix right from the start, and no one would be forced to make the “compromises” to which you refer.

  • Hi, Christof. Last time we talked — has it been five years already? — I mentioned my Colorado neighbors who spoke Japanese to their children at home. Although the youngest continued to speak Japanese to her mother, the junior high-aged boys would only use English, even when addressed in Japanese. The language ideologies learned at school, from other children as much as teachers or curriculum, are hard to overcome.

    I’m glad to hear you are having success so far raising your children to be bilingual within such an environment. I hope they continue to speak German even after encountering peer pressure at school.

    One other comment, regarding schools and the monolingual attitude in American education: The attitude is often somewhat split. For speakers of languages other than English, only English will do. (See, for instance, ‘transitional bilingual education’). For English speakers, though, a second lg may be encouraged. Your case suggests, though, even this encouragement is limited.

  • Ron, I’m just curious–what are the educational compromises you’re referring to that you observed parents making to have those children at those schools? I have my daughter in one of those programs and haven’t felt we’re making any compromises anywhere–she’s getting a great education from very dedicated teachers.