Author and podcaster eager to usher in ‘America’s Bilingual Century’
When Steve Leveen Advanced Spanish at Harvard University, he was the oldest person in the class. [238-39] He had waited a long time to get there.
“Learning Spanish has tapped my shoulder almost all my life,” writes the author of America’s Bilingual Century recalls by phone from his home in South Florida. “I was a journalist and scientific writer, [but] I have spent most of my career as a businessman. After about 25 years, I finally decided to get serious with Spanish.”
The reactions Leveen got to his new activity outside the classroom surprised him. “Oh my word, what people said to me!” he remembers laughing. “There were many conflicting claims, feelings and information.”
Some wondered why a successful American entrepreneur would bother, especially in middle age, “when the whole world speaks English,” Leveen says. Others admired him, but did not think they could learn too. †[They] seemed to have the same thirst for language as I did and whispered ‘how are you?’” he recalled. “I don’t know why they would always whisper that question!”
Leveen was fascinated, and not just by the words and phrases he learned. Are Americans really “sucking” with languages, as he had heard so many times?  Why, really, did 20e Century immigrants don’t teach their native language to their American offspring, and how has that changed?  And what are the long-term effects of knowing English? and French, Vietnamese, Spanish or even Cherokee?  The third book of Levien, America’s Bilingual Centurywhich Kirkus called “[a] well-written, captivating journey into polyglot life,” answers these questions and more, thanks to a decade of intensive research – and Leveen’s own experience as the oldest student in the Spanish class.
One of the many myths that Leveen debunks is that someone ‘cannot’ learn a second language. “We are biologically built for bilingualism,” says Leveen. “Just as humans are built to learn one language, we are built to learn two or more at once.” He cites exogamy, or marriage outside one’s own language group, and the organically bilingual families that resulted from it. “It was common for children to hear one language from one parent, one language from another, maybe a third language from the village,” Leveen says. “People are designed to thrive in that environment.”
Even if kids only hear one language at home, Leveen says, they have the potential for bilingualism. In his research on bilingual schools, which are becoming increasingly popular worldwide, Leveen found that “children are very capable of learning in two languages, and that strengthens all their languages,” he says. “Their English is stronger than [in] monolingual education.” In America’s Bilingual Centuryhe profiles several of these schools and their long-term benefits for the next generation:
Keith explained that he is a magnet school; parents want their children to be there. They understand that their children will get better jobs if they are bilingual. “Whether a child becomes a doctor, a car salesman, or works in a hotel, the bilingual person will be so much further ahead,” Keith said.
He told me about a ten-year-old African-American student who struggled with his Spanish. “His father came by for a parent-teacher conference. The teacher asked the boy if he wanted to continue his Spanish and he said no. I asked the father if he was sure this was the right place for his child. The father said to his son, ‘You must, because you will get a better job. I am a car mechanic and can’t even talk to my Spanish speaking customers. You can do it better than me, and you’ll stay at this school.’” 
But what about adults who are already working? Levenen claims that it is never too late. He is living proof.
“Some people think they’re too old to learn, that’s bullshit,” he says. “As long as you’re young enough to learn something, you can learn another language.” According to Leveen, every adult is capable of becoming bilingual. “The only [adults] what he might struggle with is getting a native accent, but that doesn’t seem to be that important,” he says. “Pronunciation is important, accent not so much.”
What can surprise? America’s Bilingual Century readers is how bilingual this country already is. Citing the US Census, part of which asks what language is spoken at home, Leveen says 76 million Americans are bilingual. In terms of numbers, this is a higher percentage than any single European country – another potentially shocking fact.
“It’s common for Americans to say, ‘Oh my god, Europeans speak three to four languages because they have to, the countries are so small; while in America, where would we even use another language?’” says Leveen. However, “if American bilinguals were their own country, they woulde largest country in the world,” he says. “Americans are definitely not bad at languages!”
Through the America Bilingual Project, including: America’s Bilingual Century and the podcasts he recorded with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), Leveen hopes to contribute to a country that can behave easily at home and around the world.
“The whole world speaks English if you want to be a tourist and buy things,” he says. “And there is nothing wrong with being a tourist. We all hope we can be tourists again!”
Levenen warns against this limited mentality. “Tourism is not the most important thing people do when they travel outside their country,” he says. “The most important thing is their professional work in [everything] from medicine to business to engineering to missionary work.” If you’re doing something scientific or professional abroad while speaking only one language, “it’s like showing up with your shoes on for the big leagues,” Leveen says. “You’re just not going to make it to the team.”
In contrast, speaking more than one language can open doors for Americans, especially “that glorious experience that bilingualism brings into your life, that vast knowledge of the world,” Leveen says. Thanks to bilingual schools and other programs, not to mention the existing population, Leveen believes every child will be bilingual — and soon. “There is no doubt that we will get it done sometime in this century,” he says. “The only question in my head is when.”
Lauren Emily Whalen is the author of four books for young adults. She lives in Chicago.