This place matters

This place matters

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Press one for grousing

I've been kind of putting off tackling the whole debate about immigrants speaking English because this seems to be one of those issues that folks just can't discuss rationally. It often starts out civilly enough, but the invective hurling starts before too long and five sentences into the argument, one party is accusing the other of eating babies.
You can probably guess that my tendencies are toward the mealy-mouthed side. My argument is not, however, that immigrants shouldn't have to learn English. My argument is that a lot of the time, especially in areas with low immigrant populations like mine, the debate has little to do with whether people should learn English. In other words, I think there are two completely separate debates going on. A debate whether immigrants should learn English, and a debate about whether immigrants - specifically brown-skinned immigrants - are a threat to American culture.
You see, I think that there are few people who don't think that having most Americans speaking a common language is a good thing. While I'm not for a law mandating it, I do think it is preferable for immigrants to learn English if they can. And actually, 90% of Hispanic people agree with that sentiment, according to Made in America author Bill Bryson. According to Bryson, immigrants are learning English at the same rates they were learning English before; the language is in no more danger now than it was a hundred or so years ago when there were a lot of Italian and Polish immigrants getting off the boat with poor English skills. So if one argues, "Everyone should learn English," the answer is "Most agree and most do." There isn't much left to argue there. 
The thing I think people fail to understand is that it's not always feasible to learn an entire language the second you cross the border. There's also the fact that having stuff in English and Spanish isn't just for people who don't know or refuse to learn English. I'm pretty sure, for example, that with the limited amount of Spanish I know, I could use the ATM in Spanish mode. But it would take two or three times as long for me to get my money, and it would be an inconvenience to everybody in line behind me. It's not a threat to the national identity to make ATM lines shorter.


When I worked at an ice cream shop back in high school, there was a lady, for instance, who came with her husband and kids. The kids picked up English pretty fast, but she spoke with a great amount of effort. It was kind of a pain, especially when we were busy, to try and piece together what she was ordering. But after three summers of my working there, she spoke English like a champ. It wasn't that she refused to learn English, it was just that she hadn't learned it yet. It would have been kind of a dick move on my part to treat her like crap those first couple of summers on the assumption that she was some kind of bad American.
There's also the fact that it's really hard to learn one language while immersed in another. For example, I know somebody who got straight As in French all through high school who barely spoke enough French to reserve a hotel room in Paris her Freshman year of college. You don't really start learning a language functionally until you're immersed in it. 
I think it's funny how in most other countries, being bilingual is seen as a good thing, a thing that shows intelligence and education. Here in America, people bitch see bilingualism as a threat. People bitch about Dora the Explorer because she teaches our children half a dozen Spanish words an episode, as if having our kids know how to say hola is a threat to the American way of life. 

1 comment:

The Vegetable Assassin said...

I find that people in every English speaking country, are TERRIBLE in general at learning other languages. Lazy. Expect everyone else to speak English. A giant proportion of them, should they find themselves living in a foreign country, would rely on their English to get by instead of attempting to learn the local language. I think we're incredibly lazy with language. In a country like the US that HAS a sizeable Hispanic population, it would make sense to teach Spanish more aggressively in school to give kids more of a bi lingual slant. It can only help in a world that will become more and more integrated eventually. It's a valuable skill for ANYONE to have and the ability of many foreign countries' kids to speak English is not only impressive, but totally embarrassing compared with English speaking children's abilities in language. I know this isn't really what your entry was about but I had to chime in as I can't help myself. :)

Immigrants should have a certain period of time (a couple years maybe) to learn basic English. Nothing elaborate, just enough to function. And the same should apply to English speakers in other countries. TO live in any foreign speaking land, you should be required to have a basic communication in the local lingo. I mean they shouldn't throw you out if you don't, but classes should be mandatory until you pass that basic level of communication.

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