Language skills decline’s not funny

The following was passage from Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, talking about covering fencing in the Sydney 2000 games, was posted to the Foreign Language teachers’ list serve recently.

I went to the fencing competition the other day. A lot of people don’t like fencing because they don’t understand the rules and terminology, but in fact it’s quite simple.

Basically, there are four thrusts—the cartilage, the chaise lounge, the aubergine, and the fromage anglaise—and these in turn can be parried by four defensive feints—the pastiche, the penchant, the demitasse, and the saumon en croute.  Scoring is on the basis of one point for a petit pois and two for a baguette. Points equally can be deducted for a foot fault, or a pied a terre, and for a type of illegal lunge known as a zut alors.

Actually, I don’t have the faintest notion what goes on in fencing, but that’s okay because this is the Olympics, and it’s full of sports that most people don’t understand or follow closely.

If you don’t know what’s funny about that passage, you might be in line to be the next British monarch.

What is definitely not funny is the decline in knowledge of languages (including English) by Americans.

Reading bestselling novels from the early part of the twentieth century for my hobby blog, GreatPenformances, makes it painfully clear that literate people 70 or more years ago were expected to know Latin and French and at least a smattering of German and Italian in order to understand popular literature. American novel readers these days are rarely expected to recognize English words of more than two syllables, let alone read a foreign language.

Why in an increasingly connected world are Americans becoming increasingly insular?