Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Obama on Multi-Lingualism

I happen to agree with Obama that Americans should learn an additional language besides English, preferably Spanish. But this comment is just nonsense:
It’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup ...
Embarrassing? To whom? To the elites who are just now, for the first time, proud of their country? The lack of people speaking multiple languages in our country is in no way a badge of dishonor that we should be held up by way of negative comparison to Europeans.

I mean, the geographic and demographic reality is that the majority of Americans have not, until now, needed to learn a second language. We live on a vast continent, separated on both sides by vast oceans. Most traveling that Americans do is within the confines of their own country. The expense, alone, of traveling overseas to foreign locales has meant that those growing up on farms in Nebraska and Iowa have not needed to become multi-lingual in the same way that an Italian person might need to learn French. Europeans, on the other hand, live on a multi-lingual continent in which traveling from France to England is a bit like going from New York to New Jersey. Most Europeans have become multi-lingual out of necessity - a necessity that most Americans haven't faced until very recently.

Demographics - i.e. an influx of Spanish-speaking folks that will likely continue for the indefinite future - will ultimately cause that to change in the U.S. Future generations of Americans will become fluent in Spanish because they will need to. My oldest son, for example, has already learned a great deal of Spanish vocalulary in the past year because his school is teaching Spanish to children as young as Kindergarten age.

That's a good thing. I, too, have tried to become fluent in Spanish, although I'm a long way from accomplishing that goal. It's definitely a laudable thing to want our children to learn a second language. But it is most definitely NOT "embarassing" that most Americans have not at this point in our history become as fluent in other languages as our European counterparts.

For what it's worth, I also agree that "English Only" laws are crap. The absolute chutzpah of "English Only" advocates, especially in Southwestern states, trying to give second-class status to a language that was spoken there for 200 years (and in some cases for 300 years) before the first English-speaking person ever set foot in those places is untenable.

As a side note, the "English Only" debate has exposed ignorance among even Progressive Era Democrats dating back to the 1920s when the first female governor of a Southern state, Texas Governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, responded to efforts to introduce bi-lingual education thusly:
If the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for the school children of Texas.

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At 7/09/2008 2:55 PM, Blogger Subvet said...

I don't believe you fully understand the sentiments of those living in the border states when you speak against "English only" laws. These aren't designed to relegate Spanishs to a second-class status as you say.

Many advocates of these laws here in Texas are reacting to the primacy given Spanish. One example happened in the drive through window at a local McDonalds where all customers were informed that only Spanish could be spoken while ordering their food. This is just the quickest example to come to mind, when you deal with it on a daily basis you become desensitized (sp?) to how ridiculous it's gotten in many respects.

All too often we're made to feel like second class citizens in our own country. The fact that Spanish was spoken here long before English doesn't mean diddle. We live in the 21st century, not the 17th. If it takes legislation to preserve our English speaking heritage, many of us here will go for it.

You may not have the same feelings, living as you do in Ohio. Spend a few years down here and your attitudes will change.

FWIW, I myself am a transplant from the northeastern part of the country. I've found it's a different ballgame when driving a few short miles makes you wonder if you're in a third world country.

At 7/09/2008 3:12 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

With all due respect, I grew up in Texas (spent 25 years of my life there, and my family still lives there). In addition, my mother and grandmother (and stepmother and aunt, etc., etc.) were public school teachers. So I know somewhat of what I'm talking about.

At 7/09/2008 3:26 PM, Blogger Subvet said...

Thats all well and good that you spent 25 years here but just in the last ten that I've lived in the Dallas area things seem to have gotten much worse in this respect.

To rephrase what I said before, it's condescending arrogance to classify "English only" laws as chutzpah. The American culture down here is under constant attack, not just in the area of language but on all fronts. An example of this is my own wife who is a native Texan. The local public schools did such a jamup job of making her ashamed to be Anglo she spent a good portion of her younger years fantasizing about being black or hispanic.

And having an elitist teacher exorcise his/her white guilt by confusing the minds of their students is crap.

At 7/09/2008 3:45 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

"The American culture down here is under constant attack ..."

I guess I would take issue with the notion that the "American culture" in Texas is solely "Anglo". Texas is - and always has been, like many other Southwestern states, a mix of American cultures.

From my perspective, those who are being condescending and arrogant are those who expect their fellow Spanish-speaking Texans whose culture has, from the very beginning, been an integral part of the fabric of the Lone Star State to lay that culture aside in preference to Anglo culture.

At 7/09/2008 7:45 PM, Blogger Kyle R. Cupp said...

I'd be embarrassed, but I speak only for myself.

At 7/09/2008 9:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we can stop massive illegal immigration this issue will take care of itself. The kids of immigrants, legal and illegal, usually speak English almost exclusively, except when speaking to madre and padre. By the time grandkids come along, they speak very little if any Spanish.

At 7/09/2008 9:28 PM, Blogger Catholic Mom said...

I have Texas roots. My mother's family are all Hispanic but have lived on the North side of the Rio Grande for at least four generations. My mother spoke Spanish before she spoke English. In the early 1940's there were no bilingual classes and she learned English when she went to school. They were punished for speaking Spanish at school. She experienced all the hateful discrimination that was common in the communities at that time. This included being told to sit at the back of the church during Mass. In spite of this,she does not support a lot of bilingual accommodations. She thinks it is important for Hispanics to assimilate into the communities and failure to learn English hinders that assimilation. I think the "English only" laws are an extreme reaction to the militant refusal to assimilate by some immigrants. Assimilation does not mean forgetting one's own native culture. If I moved to Italy, I would expect to learn Italian. Those moving to the US should expect to eventually learn English. Bilingual accommodations should be geared to support people as they learn English.

At 7/09/2008 10:38 PM, Blogger Patrick Archbold said...

If Obama moved to Europe, I would learn to say "Good riddance" in 13 different languages!

Merci Beaucoup!

At 7/09/2008 11:39 PM, Blogger Flexo said...

Meanwhile, here in Northern Virginia, far from the border, we have many areas that are 95 percent Spanish-speaking. I live in the middle of one of those areas. Walk down the street to the McDonalds or CVS or 7-11 and you will hear nearly all of the conversations of the people around you are in Spanish. The experience is quite like taking a trip to Mexico or Europe, where no one is speaking English.

And in this struggling economy, if you want a sure, well-paying job, just work as a court interpreter. It is a full-time job since such a high percentage of defendants do not speak a sufficient amount of English to adequately understand the proceedings. Of course, more and more want ads are insisting that the applicant be able to speak Spanish to get the job.

My opinion on the subject? I agree with my friend from school, who was born in Cuba and came over on a raft, not knowing a syllable of English -- total immersion, little to no bilingualism. That is the best way for folks to learn the language so as to be able to fully participate in society.

At 7/10/2008 9:27 AM, Blogger Terry said...

Having grown up in Houston and now living in South Florida I have to agree with Donald wholeheartedly. In Houston, it was not only the case with Hispanics, but you saw this among the Vietnamese boat people as well. You're also seeing it in South Florida where the Cubans are now up into their fourth generation being here, and if anything the second and third speak "Spanglish" more than actual Spanish.

It's worth pointing out there's a touch of bilingualism even in most immersion programs.

In my opinion, the problem we're facing is because we didn't enforce laws as Donald mentioned, and because we never established English as the official language, which would be extremely hard to do at this point.

At 7/11/2008 9:54 AM, Blogger Darwin said...

I come from California, and live in Texas -- the last generation of my family to learn to speak Spanish at home was my grandparents. That's pretty much the normal course of things, and as Donald says, if the tide of immigration isn't totally overwhelming that's how it will stay.

The problem, to my mind, is not with bilingualism as in people speaking primarily Spanish in some parts of our cities. This has been the case in other ethnic neighborhoods at other times. The real danger is "bi-lingual education" as it's often practiced in our public schools.

The Spanish that is widely spoken in the US is very, very low grade Spanish. (My grandfather constantly complains about this, coming from an educated Mexican family.) And generally, the bi-lingual classes (as opposed to Spanish language classes in high school) do nearly nothing to improve grammar and vocabular in Spanish. They also, however, impart almost no structured training in English grammar and vocabulary. And they often keep kids from Hispanic backgrounds on the bi-lingual track for five or more years -- because the schools get more money for kids in bi-lingual classes than kids in English classes.

The result is that many children of immigrants are not ending up able to read, write and speak in an educated manner in either language, which leaves them in danger of being stuck in lower end jobs.

A lot of immigrants themselves are really furious about this, and even normally liberal papers like the LA Times have run exposes on how public schools often keep kids on the bi-lingual track even against their parents' wishes. The problem is created by the profit motive of the schools, and the desire of "Hispanic activists" to create a solid voting block similar to inner city African Americans, in which they need to find a way to keep Hispanics from vanishing into the mainstream population just as my family did a generation ago.

At 7/11/2008 8:48 PM, Blogger Literacy-chic said...

Ooooooh, Jay. You used "Anglo" to mean "white" or "English-speaking" or "of European descent." I am not being ironic when I say that that really is a problematic Texan usage. Coming here from Louisiana, I am French, Italian, and a number of other things in lesser quantities. I am not, however, English, and the term "Anglo" really bugs me in a big way. Coming from Louisiana, I am also aware that the suppression of language is an American tradition in itself. It is not quite true to say that Americans have never had sufficient reason to learn a second language, it's just that the immigrants who learned the second language after coming quickly lost, abandoned, or had drilled out of them the languages they spoke from childhood. Case in point--my grandmother was forbidden to speak French at school, probably because of the teacher's ignorance of the language. Perhaps if neighbors had learned each others' languages instead of assimilating to avoid early American xenophobia (perpetuated by the true "Anglos"), this would be a more multilingual country--with children learning the various languages of their own heritages, not just Spanish (which is a beautiful language in its own right).

I am in favor, then, of holding on to one's linguistic roots. However, we have to have a language in common in order to communicate--at LEAST one. In Texas, this is not always the case. Who has the responsibility to learn whose language is, I guess, a separate issue. Ideally, yes, we would all benefit from learning both. But need that be institutionalized? There is indeed a kind of tit-for-tat linguistic exclusion on the part of Spanish speakers. But demonstrate a knowledge of the language, and you will be redeemed. My very non-hispanic husband is fluent in Spanish--a point that causes interesting situations at grocery stores and such from time to time! But there is good reason for the reverse snobbery, when (as my husband noted when teaching Spanish at a Texas university) the kids only feel like they need to know enough Spanish to talk to their gardeners. The issues are not purely linguistic.

But does anyone really feel that English is in danger and needs to be protected by legislation? Please. It may be an accident of history that we speak English, but that's the way the cookie crumbles, and if it should happen to crumble another way, so be it. Anyone in Italy still speaking Latin? Outside of the Vatican, I mean... ;)

The generational acquisition or abandonment of language is a totally different phenomenon. One can generalize, but there are variants. It is xenophobic to talk about letting the linguistic heritage die out. True, so-called "heritage speakers" speak a poorer version of Spanish, but that doesn't mean that they should be expected to abandon it completely. Why? So we feel better about being monolingual? Please. It's not a point of pride. It is just an accident of culture or circumstance, if you will.

Yes, the dominant language should be learned. Currently, that is English (and I don't see that being endangered in the future.) But exaggerated nationalism should not enter into this discussion. I do agree with DArwin, though. Bilingual ed has problems of its own...

At 7/11/2008 9:10 PM, Blogger Literacy-chic said...

True, so-called "heritage speakers" speak a poorer version of Spanish, but that doesn't mean that they should be expected to abandon it completely

This was NOT written in response to Darwin, with whom I agree on every point. Heritage speakers often are surprised to learn that what they speak is not correct. They have been given passes by their high school teachers by being able to speak--not necessarily write--using a wide range of vocabulary. Deviating from the "if you can get by, you're okay" attitude would improve things as well!

At 7/12/2008 10:28 AM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

Literacy Chic,

Being of Irish and Scottish descent myself, I can understand your objection to the usage of "Anglo".

I used that term because (1) it was the term Subvet used - note I put "Anglo" in quotes in my response to him, and (2) it is the root of English, which is, of course, the language at issue in "English Only" laws.

At 7/12/2008 3:45 PM, Blogger Literacy-chic said...

I wasn't really blaming you--"tongue in cheek" (the address to you, not the overall point) does not come across well, in spite of the "Oooooo." I realized after-the-fact that you were repeating the term, not using it yourself. Oops!


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