Thursday, April 06, 2006

On speaking American

Okay, so I'm just curious here - what would be so bad about a bilingual country?

One of the big complaints about Hispanic and Latino immigrants is that they come here all not speakin' American, and every time you pick up a phone you're invited to oprima el dos for espanol, and you always hear them talking Mexican on the bus and you just know they're talking about you. Over at Townhall, Kathleen Parker finds herself "increasingly annoyed" by the "unsubtle notice that the U.S. is gradually becoming a bilingual nation."

She uses her distress at the bilingualism to segue into the usual rant about Mexicans on the march, featuring the following ironic gem:
At least a segment of those protesting consider themselves to be neither immigrant nor illegal. Signs at one recent rally, for example, read "This is our country, not yours!" and "All Europeans are illegal." "Reconquista" is the word they choose to define their mission, meaning "reconquest."
The truth is, I doubt that most illegal immigrants now in the U.S. are interested in reclaiming conquered lands. Most just want a good job and a decent place to raise a family. But the sight of so many who feel entitled to a piece of the U.S., combined with a sense of encroaching bilingualism, contribute to a spirit of diminishing empathies among even the likeliest of sympathizers.

The idea of "reconquest," meanwhile, is silly. Human populations have been migrating, conquering, surrendering and ceding for 60,000 years or so. We're a rambling sort by nature, apparently, and find national borders annoying obstacles to the wanderlust with which we were, for good or bad, endowed.

to say that a) Mexicans want to reconquer American land, b) Mexicans don't want to reconquer American land, and c) humans are, by their nature, migratory, so Mexicans need to stay put.

Now, legality or illegality of immigration aside, she names "encroaching bilingualism" as a contributor to our eroding sympathies for these noble, non-conquering evil illegal immigrants. And I just don't get it. Why would our country be worse off if with a significant Spanish-speaking (or non-English-speaking in general) population?

Plenty of other countries get by with multiple official or unofficial languages. Canada (O, Canada) has gotten by with signs in English and French without having any sort of cultural or economic collapse. India is just busting with languages and dialects, one of them English, and their economy thrives as our jobs go over there. Don't even get me started on Belgium. In most major European tourist destinations, residents speak their native language and English, simply because it makes life easier if you're going to be dealing with non-natives.

Even within the US, there are pockets of bilingualism everywhere; I remember with fondness a trip to New Orleans where a few local Cajuns laughed at my college-level French, tried valiantly to teach me Creole, and failed, and then we all devolved into the international language of drunkenness. Pockets of major metropolitan areas house small communities that, within themselves, speak Italian, German, Greek, Chinese, Croatian, but no one ever shows any fear that a European language is going to overtake English as our national language.

The fear of a bilingual nation isn't about culture or economy; it's about superiority. Businesses are not likely to go under for lack of language skills; as an inbound telemarketer in college, I did learn the necessary "Lo siento, pero no hablo espanol" to turn a Spanish-speaking caller over to a Spanish-speaking associate, but the only time a translator was needed when I was there was for a Polish caller (and we did, in fact, have a Polish-speaking associate on the floor). Whether a restaurant is labeled a restaurant or a trattoria or a taqueria or something I can't even spell in Vietnamese, people are going to figure out what's being sold there. And if they have a problem buying their Mexican food from a restaurant with a Spanish name, it's for no other reason than the fact that English is, in their mind, better. American culture is better. It can't be lost, it can't be compromised, for this conquistador from the south, because it's better.

The question is, what is American culture? When a restaurant advertises American food, what is it selling? When we talk about the English language, did it spring fully-formed from the mouth of George Washington, or were there other contributions involved? Is St. Patrick's Day a nice, solid American holiday? For that matter, is Christmas? Easter?

When people say they want to protect and preserve American culture, that's not what they really want to do; they want to protect the status quo*. But American culture is evolving. It's evolved ever since the Pilgrims set their buckled shoes on Plymouth rock, since the native residents started getting slaughtered and pushed around by the invaders, since the first boatload of European immigrants made landfall, and it's not going to stop just because the current residents don't like the look of the new guys. It's human nature to fear change, but it's also human nature to change anyway. The only alternative to change is stagnation, and with stagnation, you can't have progress or improvement. As much as you might love the world you live in, it's not going to be the same five years from now, or five years after that. The only way to deal with that is to accept that, although things may be different from the way they are now, that doesn't mean that they'll be worse.

* Whoops, some Latin in there. Sorry about that. Mea culpa.

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