Being an American abroad has its challenges. One you might not expect is how Americans are perceived outside the US. Sure, we have this cool cachet – we’re the country of hip-hop and Hollywood, after all. But you also get associated with a lot of negative stereotypes.
A stereotype I hear a lot is that we’re stubborn monolinguals who expect everyone else to speak English. In reality, an estimated 20% of Americans speak at least one other language (and the real number could be much higher). And many of us will at least use basic phrases or gestures to communicate when we travel abroad. Still, I can’t completely refute this stereotype: here in France, as well as in other countries I’ve visited, I’ve seen a surprising number of American tourists who unabashedly talk at locals in English.
There are some misconceptions many Americans have about English that I think contribute to this phenomenon. Even if you’re not an “ugly American”, the reality behind some of them may surprise you:
- Americans speak English.
Brits and Americans understand each other…most of the time. But our languages can be very different. In addition to accents, notable grammatical and vocabulary features set each version of English apart. Other countries have noticed these disparities. Here in France, for example, the source of translated Anglophone literature is specified as “from English” or “from American”.
- Everyone in America should speak English!
Believe it or not, there’s no official language of the United States of America. So technically you can’t get mad at someone living in America who’s not an Anglophone. (Incidentally, our fellow predominantly English-speaking countries, the UK and Australia, don’t have an official language, either!)
- Wherever you travel, most people speak English.
Although numbers vary, it’s true that English is one of the most-spoken languages in the world. But that doesn’t mean everyone knows or understands it. You could find yourself traveling to places where the population doesn’t have access to foreign language education, or where there’s not a lot of tourism. Older generations also frequently don’t speak English, since they grew up before the mass globalization of the last few decades. So have your travel dictionary, translation apps, and open mind ready at all times.
- English is the most widely-spoken language in the world.
This goes hand-in-hand with #4. English does have an impressive global presence. But when it comes to sheer numbers, depending on your source, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and Hindi beat it. And, again and most importantly, no matter how many speakers a language might have, that doesn’t mean that everyone speaks it.
- English is easy to learn.
A lot of people point out that, compared to a language like Mandarin, which has an alphabet made up of thousands of characters and words whose meanings completely change simply based on intonation, English is pretty simple. Maybe so, but the truth is, no language is easy to learn. I’ve taught English to non-native speakers for years, and my students have struggled with my maternal language just as much as I’ve struggled with theirs. Some of the things they find most difficult: inconsistent pronunciation rules, vowel sounds, and the present perfect verb tense.
Not all Americans believe all of the myths I’ve listed, and not all of us are linguistically rude when we go abroad. Still, it’s likely you know a few who do and are. Hopefully now you can politely set them straight.