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Spanish is scary

September 11, 2009

I find this absolutely appalling.  Why folks couldn’t sit tight for 30 seconds until Representative Himes translated the question is beyond me.  Why folks felt comfortable trampling on someone else’s right to free speech is even more beyond me.      

But it did make me stop and think about the English Only movement and Americans’ fear of Spanish.  I think the capacity to understand why someone else believes or behaves as they do is a powerful skill to develop; accurately analyzing what is at the root of a given belief or behavior can shine quite a lot of light for activists wanting to address it.  And so, here is my best attempt to dissect what is going on here (and keep a lid on the snark as long as I can).

But first: there is a very real combination of racism and xenophobia at play.  And it deserves to be mentioned first.  There are folks who believe that English is a superior language, much like there are folks who believe that Whites are a superior race.  There are people who wish to create as many hurdles as possible for non-English-speakers immigrating to the United States; there are folks who would like to see them prevented from thriving or even functioning in our society via any means possible.  I’m not trying to address these people right now.  Their primary issue isn’t language; it’s hate.  

But I do believe that there are non-actively-racist, non-actively-xenophobic* folks who still support many of the principles of the English Only movement.  And they’re the ones I want to zero in on.    

1. It’s part our national identity! We’re a relatively young nation.  We’re racially and ethnically heterogeneous.  We have strong state and regional identities.  Though the majority of Americans identify as Christian, a significant and growing minority don’t, and there is almost more diversity between some interpretations of Christianity than between Christainity and other world religions.  And to top it off, there isn’t much of an American cuisine either.  So I think its conceivable that many folks think of English as an important part of American culture.  It isn’t a far leap to believe that being a “real” American means speaking English.  Seems relatively reasonable and makes for a great organizing tool.  That said, when folks are shouting down a bishop trying to ask a question in the language he’s most comfortable expressing himself in, we’re really talking about the majority forcing something upon a minority to protect the majority’s culture.  Makes it a little less compelling, doesn’t it?    

2. Speaking a single language increases political unity! Funny, I thought shared political ideals like democracy and freedom were supposed to do that.  

3. Monolinguists just don’t understand how polylingualism works. Woah, can you tell I spent some time wallowing in linguistics jargon once upon a time?  In simpler terms: as a nation of folks who mostly speak one language, we assume that expanding the number of languages we speak will dramatically change our society and for the worse!  We won’t be able to communicate with each other; the government will either descend into chaos or fail to serve a significant portion of the population; translation costs will be astronomical; infants will be confused and stop speaking altogether; the Southern states will try to secede again; and the Dark Ages will return.  

Unfortunately for the folks who believe this, it just isn’t true.  

3a. If the next generation of Americans learn to speak both Spanish and English: Although adults admittedly have a more difficult time, kids are completely unfazed by an increase in the number of languages they encounter.  A infant will learn to speak two (or three!) languages just as quickly as he/she will learn to speak one.  If they are exposed to it before the age of ten, most children have no trouble picking up a second language.  There is absolutely nothing developmentally complicated about having children learn the language(s) their parents speak at home and then learning additional language(s) needed once they start school.  There are a lot of countries already doing this very successfully.      

3b. If most non-Latino Americans continue to speak only English but increasingly interact with Spanish-speakers (gasp!): We have plenty of tools to compensate for interaction between different languages.  The degree to which technology can facilitate flawless comprehension between languages is impressive and also, increasingly affordable.  But even without technology, most of us could make it through daily life just fine.  As someone who lived abroad in two different regions of the world without first mastering the primary local language, I can vouch for the notion that the first 100 vocabulary words–even without verb conjugation–are the most important for functioning day to day.  A mix of charades, gestures and the quick sketch or two can usually fill in the gap.  (Just imagine what frequent application of this would do for Saturday night rounds of Pictionary all across the country!)  

4. This just sounds like more work. Some folks don’t want to make an effort to accommodate other folks they don’t really think are all that important in the first place.  Or maybe they do think they are a little bit important but not quite important enough to exert energy playing charades.  Well.  Then be apathetic and don’t interact with your Latino neighbors.  But please sit down and shut up while others are talking in the town hall meetings.  Kthanks.    

*Flying Whale, a post about the Racism Matrix, please?

Jonas

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3 comments

  1. That video is remarkably terrible. It merits a very unfriendly HRMPH!

    J, this was a great post. I deeply respect your observation that “I think the capacity to understand why someone else believes or behaves as they do is a powerful skill to develop” and I would love to grow in my ability to do this. I have gotten really lazy in this respect over the last few years. More posts like this on other topics, please!

    FW, I would like to see a Racism Matrix post also! I’ve forgotten how it works (forgive me, GSW).


  2. Haha, what are these fools going to say about this?


  3. […] particular post was supposed to be Flying Whale’s task, but unfortunately I need it to exist now, so that someone else can use it […]



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