10 September 2010

Language and Culture: Bilingualism

A 75 year old woman is forced by terrible circumstance to leave her home. She is a well-respected elder there, she knows her culture and her language, and is often consulted on what should be done. Now, she is in a foreign land, where revering age is not part of the culture, everyone speaks a language she doesn't know, and she needs help to accomplish the smallest task. Naturally, she will gravitate toward others from her home country. In large part, this is how our country was enriched by Little Italy, Chinatown, Solvang, and a host of other ethnic centers. This new immigrant doesn't need to learn much about the culture or language to survive in her new country. In fact, inhabitants of the new country have an amazing opportunity to experience a small taste of another country - it's culture, cuisine, and language - without ever leaving "home!"

Unfortunately, the enjoyment that so many of us gain from these cultural centers is offset by the many who resent these groups that "refuse" to integrate, assimilate, and blend in.

How do other countries deal with this? France, for example, has an official language (French, in case you wondered). It has created an entity, the so-called body of "immortals," to keep the language from "straying." In addition, it requires prospective new citizens to demonstrate integration into the french culture and working knowledge of french language. This is so important to France that they have classes for these future citizens, paid for by the French government (that is, via taxes).

Why does the United States not do this? One reason could be that in the United States, English is a defacto language. While it is true that most historical, official documents are in English, there is, in fact, *no* "official" language. Granted, if you want to communicate with the majority of the inhabitants, you must be able to speak (read, write, understand) English. But you *can* be truly "American," contribute to the melting pot, and still not know English. Another reason - probably *the* reason - could be that most Americans would balk at taxes paying for the sort of classes that are offered in France.

So what happens? Resentment grows. Every time they hear a voice mail system offering an alternative language, they get angry. "I live in AMERICA, damn it, why should *I* have to press one for *ENGLISH!*" That refrain is so common, it's reduced to a one-line joke, a toss-away line, "What? You don't understand me? Press one!" Every time voting material or a driver's license test is offered in multiple languages, American mono-linguists fume. "Why is my tax money paying for this?!? If you can't vote in English, you don't belong here!" Americans are bombarded with the chant "we speak English in America." The as-yet-un-chanted corollary is "you foreigners have no business being here." That is when the mono-linguist becomes a chauvinist, and the country becomes poorer.

So why should taxes pay for official documents in multiple languages? Consider the woman at the beginning of this post. Suppose she becomes a citizen. She wants to do her duty as a citizen, and so she obeys the traffic laws, she sits on a jury when called, and she votes. How does she do a proper job of it if she can't fully understand the subtleties of the language? I have read my share of propositions, and it certainly takes a fine comb to tease apart what they really mean. And English *is* my native language. Doesn't it make sense to give a voter all the information possible to make a valid, informed decision? Do you really want someone voting for a law they don't understand? That happens often enough when the voter is a 5th generation English-speaker. One way or the other, the citizenry will pay for the learning curve of its newest members.

So many Americans forget the fact that they *are* Americans because their ancestors immigrated. Many come from English-speaking backgrounds, and so don't even have family stories about learning a new language. Because of this, they simply don't realize just how hard it is to become fluent, or even to become independent in a new language. They don't understand the little joys that come with knowing even a little of another language. Without this, how can you enjoy that little moment when you are "sauteing" something, and you realize that yeah, it *is* jumping around in there! (to further your delight, "sauter" = "to jump" in French)

Think for a moment about the foreign-language education where I grew up, in rural California. There was never a possibility of learning another language in elementary school - it simply wasn't even considered, let alone available. By the time I got to high school, "prop 13" had become law, school budgets were cut, and the "choice" of a foreign language class was reduced to one. The only reason the entire "department" wasn't cut was because of the college entrance requirement of 2 years of a high school foreign language. So, for two years, I had a required class that was "the goof-off class." No one learned anything; no one took it seriously; it was a class to skate by on.

Since then, I have had to learn enough of another language to survive in a country where English is popular, but not common. I have the luxury of being able to fall back on English words when I get stuck, and often someone will understand me. I can tell you that using another language is *hard!* It is painful. It is lonely. It is beautiful and enriching. It is occasionally funny. There is no better way to learn about another culture than to understand its language.

Because learning another language has had such a powerful effect on me, I find it especially disappointing that the United States is becoming more and more "anti-bilingual." It is no longer sufficient to disdain those who don't know English. People (occasionally even in news broadcasts) now scorn the very idea of multilingualism, equating it with "not from here," which is also somehow *bad.* It is as though you are not 100% AMERICAN if you can speak another language besides English. Now, pop culture jokes include "bilingual" in the list of unsavory characteristics of a low-life. Somehow, being more ignorant has become better.

They say that travel and language study broaden the mind. Since when does staying home narrow it?


Donna said...

My mother learned English when she started elementary school. She's from a small town north of Bari, Italy. Her family lived in the Italian ghetto of New Haven, CT where English was rarely heard.
I had to learn American Sign Language after losing all my hearing at 48 years of age.
Sure it's hard but our lives are more rich for living/speaking in another "skin."

Julie said...

Just saw this article: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/education/119031-we-must-promote-multilingualism-in-our-schools-rep-judy-chu

Spend a moment reading the comments as well - unbelievable how much chauvinism is evident in these comments. Prepare to be depressed.

Andrew said...

Thanks for sharing this link. It was indeed shocking to see many of the comments made on Rep. Judy Chu's post. What was even more shocking was the outrage of certain individuals who clearly did not read past the first paragraph. She clearly states that English should be taught to all immigrants to the United States. Her main argument was that learning additional languages sharpens our minds, and allows normal Americans to be competitive in an increasing international marketplace. I can certainly stand by this argument having studied Spanish and Chinese in college.

Julie said...

Another college cuts degree programs in foreign languages: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/10/17/do-colleges-need-french-departments