Saturday, May 27, 2006

Just Every Now and Then, It Would Be Nice of Our National Leaders and Commentators Could Be a Little Less Provincial

I don't have a real strong opinion on whether English should be an "official" language of the U.S. or not. It says a lot about Americans and our stubborn monolingualism that we're incapable of conceiving of large numbers of people being effectively bilingual. Amusingly, many theology professors have told me that it's only in the U.S. that students of theology (and average churchgoers) have such a hard time conceiving of the concept that Jesus spoke probably three or four languages - Aramaic, koine Greek, the formal Hebrew of the Torah, and possibly at least a smattering another local language (or two!). They want to know which ONE language was the REAL language Jesus spoke so they can only worry about that one. Some go so far as to insist it's "impossible" for anyone who's not a scholar to speak more than one and Jesus was a poor carpenter's son.

I think immigrants should try to learn English - not because "this is America, darn it" but because it will give them so many more chances in life, not just in the U.S., but around the world (more on that later). Also because English is simply a fantastic language with a stunning literary tradition that's worth learning for its own sake.

But THIS is a sentiment I'm getting really tired of seeing, in this case from George Will: "Among those is this: The idea of citizenship becomes absurd when sundered from the ability to understand the nation's civic conversation." (He's supporting the concept of refusing to provide certain governmental documents, particularly ballots, in languages other than English.)

Apparently these people who insist our nation will go down in flames if we speak more than one language here have never heard of Switzerland, a strong democracy of long-standing that has FOUR official languages - French, German, Italian, and Romansh - which officially calls itself by the Latin name of "Confoederatio Helvetica" so as not to favor any one language. (And the entire darn country speaks English too!) Belgium does okay speaking French and Dutch (Flemish), with an officially-recognized German-speaking minority. The Republic of Ireland deliberately resurrected the dying Irish Gaelic language and made it an official national and governmental language - alongside English - to STRENGTHEN its democracy.

These situations are all quite different from one another, and from ours. But this assumption that speaking more than one language dooms a national democracy or national culture is just so ... well, stupid. So monomanically monolingual!

English doesn't need "saving" by the U.S. government. (Frankly, almost anything worthwhile should be protected from the meddling of the U.S. government, which is what bugs me about these so-called faith-based initiatives - keep the state out of my church, darn it!) The international language of commerce, arts, and - yes - the internet (90% of all internet communications) will do just fine on its own. Part of English's worldwide popularity stems from its flexibility and ability to absorb other words it finds useful or descriptive.

Frankly monolingual Americans should probably be begging our Mexican and Quebecois neighbors to teach us a second language: When the entire world speaks English AND another language (I read there are more English-speakers in China than native English-speakers in the entire world), that puts Americans who can ONLY function in English at quite a disadvantage on the world stage. Why would a rapidly-expanding Brazilian multinational bother to hire a monolingual American when it has its choice of perhaps as many as a billion people (estimates vary considerably) who can speak English AND another language and can therefore function in more cultures and countries? German chancellor Willy Brandt once said, "If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen" ("you must speak German").

4 comments:

pollypeoria said...

I think this attempt to "save" English is really a vast whiny conspiracy of nonintellectuals too stupid and/or too lazy to learn a foriegn language.

Anonymous said...

Polly does know a thing or two about whiny....

My brother-in-law REFUSES to speak Spanish in his own house. My sister has BEGGED him to, so my niece will know at least a smattering of Spanish. The poor girl gets more spanish from Dora than her own Dad. It is so sad.

Having met a lot of people from other countries, I SO wish I were fluent in another language and treasure what little Spanish I picked up my Freshman year of High School.

Anon E. Mouse

Eyebrows McGee said...

I am semi-literate in four different languages (Spanish, Russian, Italian, and Hebrew - I never managed to land in a class scheduling situation that enabled me to stick with one!) and it's blindingly clear to me how vastly improved my life would be if I was fluent in one of them. Makes me so jealous of my European friends who speak three or four languages without a second thought!

brian said...

Well it's entertaining to know the government is not fluent in ours....
Yesterday in LAX I was waiting in yet another security line for my third red eye in three days and a sign caught my eye. It was a warning about an airport in indonesia and it's failure to provide adequate security measures. The text started like this...The Secretary of the Department of Homeland security has determinded that.....
I wonder how many tax dollars it took to get such a well proofed announcement. I may not know how to punctuate but I can use a spell checker and I know my tax dollars paid for those!!!