Sunday, August 29, 2010

It's Not All Greek to Me

I try not to rant too much, but every once in awhile someone says something that brings that sort of thing out in me.

Someone hit a wrong button on a debit card machine and somehow got into the Spanish menu.  "I hate this!" she burst out.  "This is America!"
Shorthand for this is America and we only speak English here, and everyone else has to speak English too.
Regardless of whether they're just visiting as opposed to permanent or semi-permanent residents?  Regardless of age?
Yes, I think that people who decide to come live here ought to try to learn English in order to get by in our country, and I agree that kids should, if they're in mainstream schools, have all their tests in English, etc.  


I think the hostility is misplaced.  My DH told me about how in Istanbul he found it remarkable that his waiter could get by, at least enough to do business, in a dozen languages.  And then he found out that was true in another restaurant.  And another.  And another.  Naturally this worked out great for him, since he could only barely get by in Arabic.  It left a deep impression on him, not only because the waiters were so clever/intelligent/adaptable, but because it showed so much hospitality.

I know many people feel like this country has been too hospitable to immigrants, especially illegal ones, but please read on.

When my family went to the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia and behind the Iron Curtain) to visit family, a *huge* number of citizens there knew English, Russian and German.  In fact, we were standing in a store line in a duty-free store and my father tugged on my mom's sleeve.  "Hey, that little kid is speaking perfect Czech!" he said in Czech.  "Yeah," my uncle said behind him, not missing a beat, "and that German kid is speaking really good German too."  There were so many languages bandied about that he'd forgotten we were in Prague for a moment.  And the locals could understand the vast majority of languages spoken by everyone in that store.  Was the Czech identity bankrupt because of this?  No.  It's a country proud of its culture, a culture that lacks diversity to a certain extent because so many people that come to live there become absorbed.  They become Czech within a generation, sometimes less (invaders often found that a large percentage of their population went 'native.')  

Sound familiar?  Ah, America, the great melting pot ... but somehow some of its citizens have become fearful not just of immigrants, but of ... what?  Having lots of languages spoken on her soil?  I have to wonder what the harm in that would be.  All I can think of is how much we have to gain, not by increasing the number of 'national languages' (there's no need to be so official and mandate-y) but by expanding our ability to communicate with the whole world.  Aren't there any people/opinions/blogs/whatever out there written in foreign languages worth connecting with?

Back in the day, schools were expected to teach children at least one foreign language, a musical instrument, at least one classical language like Latin or Greek, art, and literature.  Bare minimum.  As public schools became more and more strapped for money to hire good instruction, private schools became the last hold-out for the 'classic' education.  

Are people afraid of America becoming multi-lingual because they themselves might be left behind?  I don't know if there are people who are multi-lingual who hold the point of view that we shouldn't have multi-lingual tech support and language choices on ATMs and debit machines.  I know, the schools don't have time and resources to have mandatory languages taught in them from an early enough age to create multi-lingual fluency.  But shouldn't kids be learning something at home too?  Which gave me an intriguing idea--maybe our family should pick a language and only speak that at dinner.  Movie and a dinner could be done with the movie in, say, French, with English subtitles to help us follow the story.  

But I digress.

Another story from Prague--my sister and I were in a crystal shop, talking while we waited in line.  I overheard one of the clerks say "Look, they're Americans.  Let's make them wait."  I turned to her and said "I can understand what you're saying."  She turned beet red and had to retreat to the back room, she was so embarrassed.

Ignorance is ignorance, and prejudice is prejudice.  People speaking Spanish or French or German or Japanese on the bus amongst each other are speaking in their native language--the language they can speak the best.  While my sister and I were in that store, we could have only had the most simplistic conversation, since we don't know Czech as intimately as we do English.  Were we trying to be secretive?  No.  But we did have a huge advantage--we understood Czech.  Don't think for a second that people who struggle with English (and it's a tough language, even for people who speak languages in the same family) can't understand you.  It's you who can't understand them, whether it's accent, or the way they struggle with grammar, or the softness of a voice made shy by unfamiliarity--or because you can't speak their native language.  Despite any awkwardness in English, they have the advantage.  Maybe that's where the fear comes in.  But you know, that advantage is easily negated by language books on tape or a night class.  Should you have to?  No.  But I didn't beat my arachnophobia by insisting that the government eradicate all the spiders in the U.S., or genetically modify them so that they didn't come into my house or build their webs across the sliding glass doorway (I hate that!)  I had to learn about spiders to help ease my fears.  I also had the choice to continue to do the heebie-jeebie dance every time I saw a spider in the bathtub, and to live in dread of going outdoors in summer.  But that would have made a very narrow, fearful life for me.  

The person with two or more languages in their heads is someone whose intelligence I can respect.  And I have to admit that I lose respect for people who cling to one and claim it is the only language anyone should communicate in because of where they are, with no regard to that person's business there.  And that business may be something that takes only a few days, or a few hours.  Just because someone speaks Spanish (or French, or German, or ...) it doesn't automatically mean that they plan to spend the rest of their lives in the place that they happen to be.  I doubt anyone in tourist-weary Paris would expect me to know more than a handful of badly-pronounced French phrases, and they would famously rescue me by speaking really good English, or locating someone passing by who knows it.  Are we as Americans somehow safer, or better, or more patriotic, or more special because it would take much longer to find someone passing by who spoke French if a Parisian happened to be visiting our country?

By the way, no one is forcing anyone to learn Spanish or any other language to get by in America.  If there are a lot of Spanish or other-speaking people around, chances are if you say hi in English, they'll say hi back, and even say how are you in English.  And those signs have English as the top option, often in a bigger font.  No skin off my back, or anyone else's, right?  If I'm wrong, please correct me.

Another thing.  Based on my observations of my grandmother who has been trying to learn English starting in her fifties (she's now almost 90)--sometimes, for whatever reason, some people who become permanent citizens simply can't learn more than a little English.  Should they be thrown out because they can't learn English (or denied citizenship in the first place)?  I don't know the answer to that one, but I must say it makes me uncomfortable to think of all the wonderful, talented people from all around the world who make a living in our country who would be denied work visas or citizenship based on their linguistic ability.  (Not to mention I'd sure miss my grandmother!)  I personally don't care what language my surgeon speaks.  I just want him to be the best surgeon I can get.  This was highlighted in a weird little news story I read in the newspaper today about how certain countries have shortages in various professions because they're restricting citizenship.  Because they don't have the right schools, or there isn't enough interest (who would have thought England would be short on people who know how to shear sheep?  But they are.  I'm not making this up!) they have no choice but to hope that someone from another country will come in to fill the gap.  Except ... yeah.  Sorry, apparently the sheep shearers willing to move over don't fulfill immigration requirements.  Guess there'll be a wool shortage, and some pretty unhappy sheep.

Anyway, I'll keep my opinions about immigration, illegal or otherwise, to myself.  Regardless of stance, though, pouring anger into hatred of foreign language being spoken on our soil (oh, the audacity) and having signs in many languages (thank goodness they had those in Montreal,) or having an option for Spanish and/or French, or other languages on product packaging--I don't see a reason to beat up on that.  I'm proud that I can stumble along in more than a couple of languages on those multi-lingual signs.  And I'm sorry, but it makes more sense to have Spanish and French on our street signs than Braille on a drive-up ATM (though I understand that that can be useful at times.)  

Sometimes I choose the Spanish option just to see how far I can get in a computer menu.  Worried about Alzheimers?  Screw learning Sudoku.  Learn a foreign language.  Now that's real brain work.  

This is the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, not Land of the Willfully Ignorant and Home of the Afraid.  Yay America, the Great Melting Pot!  I'm proud to be a (multi-lingual) American.


Kai Jones said...

One reason we are less likely to learn another language in the US is because we can travel so far without needing it. Virtually all of the US and Canada are available to people who speak only English--over two thirds of the continent, thousands of miles in any direction.

Maybe if each of the United States spoke a different language we'd have just naturally learned a few from necessity. I'd need to know Washingtonian and Californian at minimum!

I suppose it's a form of privilege.

Kami said...

I'm not sure if it's a privilege or not. I'd have to think about that. I do think, though, that Americans are cheated a bit by not having a culture of linguistic diversity.

When Americans that only speak English travel abroad, they're a bit more lost than folks who grow up speaking two or three languages. Not all foreign countries have compensated for this lack by having lots of English-speaking folks handy. Even if they do, I'm surprised that people would willingly accept such dependency.

OTOH, it may be that there isn't as much interest in travel to foreign countries as I imagine. When I was a kid, going to Europe or India or someplace exotic was something people used to strive for. Now ...?