According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 18% of Americans speak a language other
than English. With this in mind, it was quite a surprise when Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the most famous social networking site, Facebook, addressed a question and answer session at
a Beijing university in Chinese.
[hr-line][/hr-line]The media quickly picked up on the story and reacted very favourably, with one journalist writing: “The crowd gasped and applauded, and the good vibes appeared to last throughout the chat”.
Internet industry professionals have recognised the importance of being able to communicate in Chinese as the country has the largest population of Internet users, totalling 632 million users. Some have interpreted Zuckerberg’s move as a way of ‘buttering up’ his hosts considering that China does not allow its inhabitants to access Facebook.
Those less sceptical see nothing strange about Zuckerberg addressing his audience in their native language and have actually criticised the lack of language skills amongst their own population, drawing attention to the fact that only a quarter speak a foreign language. The apathy amongst the American population when it comes to learning a second language has been attributed to the fact that most of them expect other nationalities to speak English, as one journalist puts it: “When immigrants bring foreign languages to our towns and cities, we generally haven’t met them in the middle. We’ve demanded they learn English. Plus, when English speakers travel abroad, we tend to expect the world to cater to us.”
In the U.S. the language most widely used after English is Spanish, as there are 37 million inhabitants in the country who speak it, and in the U.K., according to the 2011 census, the second language after
English is Polish. From a survey of 56.1 million residents of England and Wales, 546,000 speak Polish which is a slightly lower figure than the 562,000 who speak Welsh.
Demographic changes in any given country have a significant impact on language and communication as citizens of various nationalities enter the country and settle there, bringing with them their own language and elements of their own culture. It is cited that one of the reasons why Mark Zuckerberg chose to learn Mandarin was to be able to communicate with his in-laws as his wife is of Chinese origin. There are many obvious benefits of learning a foreign language; however, the emphasis is usually placed on the fact that a second language can increase job opportunities whereas there is little mention of how it can help us to embrace different cultures and how it can enrich our lives on a more personal level.