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From a comment on English Language & Usage, also mentioned in Wikipedia, and Chad Fowler's book The Passionate Programmer (Related blog post by the author: How Learning a Second Language Changed My Life, where he describes it as a joke he heard in India, which used to be a British colony)

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

Are Americans more likely to be monolingual than people of other countries?

The joke doesn't provide a definition of what counts as "American", in terms of whether immigrants to the United States count as American, or the children of immigrants, or only people whose parents were themselves born in the United States.

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I suspect there is a more general claim regarding English speakers. Britons also think they are more monolingual than the rest of Europe. –  Sklivvz Aug 28 at 5:05
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@Sklivvz that would be very plausible, because English is the most common foreign language learnt. If you're a native English speaker, you wouldn't learn English as a foreign language. –  Andrew Grimm Aug 28 at 5:08
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It's more of a claim about India. English-speaking Indians are multi-lingual: English is the 'lingua franca' in India. –  ChrisW Aug 28 at 8:41
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nytimes.com/2012/01/15/opinion/sunday/… has some thought on the subject. –  S Vilcans Aug 28 at 10:00
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Does a joke really count as a notable claim? –  Flimzy Aug 28 at 11:52

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

At least in the case of Europe and the U.S., statistics do exist that directly answer this question. Those statistics simply aren't the ones from the censuses.

In 2013, a Gallop poll found that 34% of Americans could hold a conversation in at least one second language. In 2012, a European Commission survey found that 54% of Europeans could hold a conversation in at least one second language. So, at least when compared to Europeans, yes, Americans are somewhat more likely to be monolingual.

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The Gallup poll was a phone interview of people aged 18 and older. The European poll was face-to-face interview of people aged 15 and older. The Annex which describes the European survey is found here. –  ChrisW Aug 29 at 16:12
    
Good catch. That might skew the statistic slightly in Europe's favor, since school-age children would be more likely to be taking a second-language class. Still, assuming the age distribution of those polled is representative of the populations studied, 15-17 year olds would only represent a few percent of the population, so the overall statistics wouldn't be affected by more than a few percent by that discrepancy, at most. The measured difference is sufficiently large that the ultimate conclusion of Americans being more monolingual would still hold. –  reirab Aug 29 at 16:19
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I agree (and upvoted your answer). I posted that comment because I wanted to verify whether and how much the two surveys were alike, and it took me a slight amount searching (whose result I wanted to share) to find the Annex in which the European survey was described. –  ChrisW Aug 29 at 16:25
    
Yes, I appreciate the added information and upvoted your comment. I just wanted to make its ramifications clear to others who might read it. –  reirab Aug 29 at 16:44

SUMMARISED ANSWER

To be able to answer the question, a baseline measurement needs to be established. What does it mean to be multilingual/monolingual? How do you measure populations? Where does the data come from? Who is being compared in a "more likely" scenario? American to another Westerner, or to an average global citizen?

There are no reliable statistics to answer the question. So the only honest answer, unfortunately, is we don't know for sure.

That said, here are some points of reflection for those who want to explore the question from different angles.

DETAILED ANSWER chart of bilingual countries

Viorica Marian Ph.D. and Anthony Shook compare US to EU bilingualism as part of a neurological study and created the graph comparison above. Based on statistics from the European Commission and the US Census, there is clearly a big gap, although there is also a distinction between speaking a language at home and having the skills to speak another language.

François Grosjean, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, reflects also on the challenge of counting bilinguals, including the definition.

I will present two examples of national censuses—the one in the United States and the one in Switzerland—and show how quite official data can sometimes produce very surprising results. In this instance, it would appear that there are proportionally more bilinguals in the United States than in Switzerland, even though the latter country is known the world over for the bi- or multilingualism of its inhabitants.

In short, this is because of the way questions are phrased (specifically related to German vs. Swiss German dialect).

The outcome was that Swiss Statistics stated that a mere 15.8 percent of the Swiss population is bi- or multilingual (less than the 20 percent found for the U.S.) when, in fact, most Swiss people know several languages that they use frequently.

In this piece, he also discusses the drivers and influencing factors in bilingualism. Asia as a general rule is pointed to as a place where multilingualism is a daily fact. Americans have less incentive/need to learn another language because English is the current global language of trade/commerce (as Greek and Latin have been in the past).

With these facts and the phrasing of the question "more likely", the answer nudges to "Yes, Americans are more monolingual", but Michael Erard writing for the NYT in 2012 believes that it's still a toss up.

Recently, the Stockholm University linguist Mikael Parkvall sought out data on global bilingualism and ran into problems. The reliable numbers that do exist cover only 15 percent of the world’s 190-odd countries, and less than one-third of the world’s population. In those countries, Mr. Parkvall calculated (in a study not yet published), the average number of languages spoken either natively or non-natively per person is 1.58. Piecing together the available data for the rest of the world as best he could, he estimated that 80 percent of people on the planet speak 1.69 languages — not high enough to conclude that the average person is bilingual.

Multilinguals may outnumber monolinguals, but it’s not clear by how much. The average American may be no more monolingual or less multilingual than any other average person elsewhere on the planet. At the very least, we can’t say for sure — not in any language. [emphasis added]

EDIT: Check out this Wolfram Alpha-generated overview of the spread of languages spoken in the USA at home. It has been noted by several that the home bias is a core weakness to the census data.

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Well referenced statements that something is hard to measure are useful, so I've upvoted this. –  Andrew Grimm Aug 28 at 10:30
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I'd like to point out the graph about the United States does not specifically speak to multilingualism; it addresses whether English is the language used at home. Somebody could speak a non-English language at home and also not know English. –  SocioMatt Aug 28 at 12:13
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And for that matter an American could be multi-lingual and nevertheless speak only English at home (by choice or because that's the only language they have in common with whoever they live with). Sounds like those researchers basically found no data on multi-lingual Americans, if that's the closest they came up with. –  Steve Jessop Aug 28 at 12:25
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Agreed. I speak fluent Spanish as well as English... but not at home. –  Mason Wheeler Aug 28 at 13:00
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So, to summarise: The first graph about Europe looks interesting, but the Swiss think it doesn't measure the right thing. The second graph about the USA is not comparable, and is not helpful for this question. You think the answer might be true based on some theory. A Swede measured something completely different which didn't help. A linguist in the NYT says he couldn't find any useful stats. Might I suggest you scrub the answer down to that last point? –  Oddthinking Aug 28 at 15:14

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