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Bilingualism

Righty: This country was founded by people who spoke English, we’ve been speaking it ever since, and nobody can force us to speak anything else. English must be established once and for all as the official language of the U.S. The millions of immigrants who poured into America a century ago all worked their tails off to learn English and assimilate into the melting pot. Why do these recent Hispanic immigrants feel that an exception should be made in their case? We’re actually rewarding them for refusing to assimilate. Can you believe it? Instead of making Hispanics learn English, we coddle them with bilingual signs, packaging, education — even bilingual characters on children’s TV shows. Why should our kids have to learn Spanish when Hispanic parents won’t teach their kids English? Unfortunately, it’s easy to see why. At the rate they’re immigrating and cranking out babies, Hispanics are going to outnumber us in thirty years anyway. So maybe they don’t see any point in learning what will eventually be a minority language in the good old Estados Unidos.

Lefty: As a nation of immigrants, the United States should encourage diversity in all its forms. The Latino peoples are entitled to bring their rich heritage with them when they choose to enter our country. Why shouldn’t they continue to speak Spanish if that’s their preference? We’re supposed to be a democracy, even though our imperialist leaders stole the entire American Southwest from Mexico back in 1848. (I see it as poetic justice that the Southwest is slowly reverting to its Spanish roots. Call it Santa Anna’s revenge.) If we post bilingual signs, create bilingual packaging and add bilingual instructions to our voting booths, how does it inconvenience the rest of us? Nobody is forcing you to learn Spanish, Righty. The ignorant xenophobes who fight bilingualism are sending the worst possible message about America to the rest of the world.

The New Moderate:

It wouldn’t hurt Americans to learn a foreign language or two, including Spanish. Our xenophobic tendencies sometimes get the better of us; a nation so vast and powerful shouldn’t be so provincial. But The New Moderate feels compelled to support English as the lingua franca of these States. Should we make it official? Yup, we probably should.

I know I’m attempting to hold back the tide here. I know I’m taking a stand that eventually will put me on the wrong side of history. I know my rhetoric might strike many of you as shrill, immoderate and even hateful. But I don’t think my position is immoderate at all.

The English-speaking majority shouldn’t have to make special accommodations for immigrants who, for whatever reason, resist learning English. Like Righty, I’m especially galled by the stealth bilingualism I’ve noticed in children’s TV shows aimed at English-speaking kids. What are those children’s shows telling us, anyway? That we’re expected to learn Spanish because Hispanics will never learn English? If so, they’re making ridiculous demands of the English-speaking majority while unconsciously insulting the Hispanic community.

Why should the rise of Spanish as a second American language trigger our inner alarm systems? The reasons are many, but let’s start here. Suppose the next great wave of immigrants came to us from Russia, and that those newcomers balked at learning English. Would we adopt trilingualism to accommodate them? How about an incoming wave from India — would we feel obligated to add Hindi, Bengali and other Indian dialects to our already overcrowded signs? Do you see the point?

But bilingualism is more than just the first step toward out-of-control multilingualism. All those bilingual signs, packages, ATMs, automated phone messages, voting booths and TV shows send Latino immigrants the misleading message that they can survive in the U.S. without learning English. Why bother to sort through all those inconsistent English pronunciations and gnarly English spellings when the U.S. makes it so easy to get by en español? The problem is that American college professors aren’t planning to give bilingual lectures anytime soon. If Hispanic immigrants want to advance beyond laboring jobs, they have to be ready for the all-English environment of American higher education.

When immigrants settle in a new land, they should be eager to embrace their adopted nation and learn as much about it as they can — including its language. It doesn’t take more than a few weeks for an observant foreigner to pick up the essential words and phrases. Hi. Bye. What? Where? How much? Help! By six months they should be able to hold simple conversations in the language of Shakespeare and George W. Bush. No excuses. The older folks might be pardoned for preferring the comforts of their native tongue. And The New Moderate encourages all hyphenated Americans to preserve their ancestral language and customs at home. But those who expect to work in the U.S. and attend school in the U.S. should learn the language of the U.S. — and until further notice at least, that language is English.

Some on the left (including our friend Lefty) note with satisfaction that the rise of Spanish in the U.S. represents a kind of historical justice, a reversion of stolen territory to its original tongue. But keep in mind that Spanish was the language of conquerors, not natives. (Anyone out there remember the conquistadors?) Nobody is striking a blow for the underdog by encouraging the acceptance of Spanish as a second language in these States.

A few decades ago the province of Quebec had the audacity to remove English from all its previously bilingual signs, even though its territory has been ruled by the British since 1763. (It’s been nearly 250 years, mes amis — time you got used to it!) The United States would clearly be more justified than Quebec in limiting its communications to a single language — the language of its founders and government. English.

Ultimately, America just can’t afford to deal with the prospect of nations within a nation. One of the great strengths of the U.S. has been its ability to absorb those huddled masses of immigrants and transform them into something called Americans. That transformation is critical to American identity. Without it, the U.S. will most likely decline into a fragmented, factional (think of Iraq or the former Yugoslavia) and depressingly third-rate nation.

Bias against speaking Spanish in the U.S. should never be equated with (or transformed into) prejudice against Hispanics. The New Moderate knows several Latino immigrants who speak fluent English and have adapted themselves to American life in the best immigrant tradition. I’m on their side (assuming they’re here legally), as all moderates should be. We can only hope they carry more clout in their community than those who like to pretend they’re still south of the border.

Summary: No special status should be granted to Spanish or the languages of other recent immigrants, who should learn English if they want to advance in American society.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Dudah permalink
    July 20, 2009 10:10 pm

    *** “When immigrants settle in a new land, they should be eager to embrace their adopted nation and learn as much about it as they can — including its language.”
    Having lived for 36 years with a wonderful woman who arrived in NYC knowing no English – let alone “American”, and knowing what her and her entire family did to embrace the language of the country they chose to come to …. I say – “Hear Hear !”

  2. July 21, 2009 9:44 pm

    Dudah: From what I can see, the recent Spanish-speaking immigrants aren’t learning English because our country makes it so easy for them to get by in Spanish. We’ve never done this for a single immigrant group until now. I don’t know if it’s because of the sheer numbers, or because we’ve become almost insanely “sensitive” to the needs of others. The liberals who encourage the use of Spanish probably can’t see that their very liberalism is preventing Hispanic immigrants from moving ahead in American society. You really can’t get a college education (or a decent job) here unless you know English.

    From what I’ve heard, the second generation is picking up English. But as long as the immigrants keep flowing into the U.S., I suspect there’ll eventually be a tipping point at which we’ll have to start learning Spanish.

  3. Michelangelo Markus permalink
    September 22, 2009 5:47 pm

    Indeed. There are many countries that can be multi-lingual and still work, but in any country of good size there still ends up having to be one language that rises to the fore that virtually everyone knows. The logistics get impossible once you get a large enough population. America is far too large and diverse to work without an official language If we don’t nip this trend in the bud, we will be regretting it later.

    But to get an opposing viewpoint let me refer to xkcd: http://xkcd.com/84/

  4. Taliesin Knol permalink
    January 6, 2010 2:46 pm

    English is the primary language of the educated(rich&powerful)and if you come to a country that almost exclusively speaks it, you must learn it. This isn’t Europe, with six contries and 12 languages on every border. That said, we could learn from the European language education system, starting with teaching proper English, ya heard?

  5. valdobiade permalink
    January 6, 2010 4:33 pm

    As a new explorer coming in the US of North American continent, I have to say that you have to learn the language of “native conquerors” if you want to live with the rich and powerful of this land. If you have to explore and live in the South American continent, you have to learn the language of their “native conquerors”, which is Spanish and Portuguese.

    Now, the borders of US are well established and the language is an English dialect, which replaced the languages of natives. Should people from South America come in the US of North America *and live here*, then they have to learn the “native conquerors” language (English dialect), as they learned their “native conquerors” language (Spanish and /or Portuguese).

    Why should Spanish be spoken as a second language when living in the US? Is Spanish language a truly heritage when living in South America and should be preserved when living in the US? I truly doubt so, for Mexicans are speaking the language of their conquerors, NOT the language of their ancestors.Why Mexicans, when they want to live in the US, don’t leave a conqueror language (Spanish), for another conqueror language (English dialect)?

    Arguing that California is a Mexican territory is like arguing that Spaniards have the right to have California. There are not Aztecs or Inca population who want to reclaim their territories, there is a *new* mixed culture (Aztec, Inca, Spanish) that don’t want to create a *new* mixed culture (Aztec, Inca, English) in the US, and all that NOT because Spanish language is a “heritage”, but because of laziness.

    I may be harsh in calling people who want to come from South America in North America “lazy” to learn the new conquerors language, but look at the over 30 nations coming from all the world in the US and speaking English. Their children children don’t speak anymore their native language and still keep some of their cultural traditions.

    I am not against learning other languages but why one of them should be Spanish?

  6. January 8, 2010 7:53 pm

    Agreed, Valdo. Nobody (except us) seems to notice that Spanish is the language of conquerors. I don’t see any of the immigrants trying to resurrect the Aztec language (Nahuatl, I think). They’re just unwilling to accommodate to their new country, and their new country is bending over backwards to make them feel at home. A lot of the bilingualism we see is nothing more than crass commercialism: stores like Sears display bilingual signs because it means more business from the Hispanic segment of their demographic.

  7. Linda permalink
    May 25, 2010 7:15 am

    I agree with righty, mostly. However, for one brief shining moment, in 4th grade (1958-1959), the Dallas Independent School District taught Spanish in elementary classrooms. I loved it. My nephew was learning Spanish in pre-school and kindergarten, and you would love to have heard his pronunciation. It was perfect. He glowed with pride as we all listened to him in surprised awe. Those were Montessori schools. Public school put an end to his Spanish-learning. His Greek pronunciation was also perfect. Kids are natural language learners. They just sponge it up, no problem! They don’t learn language because it’s politically correct. You know why they learn it? Peer pressure. They don’t care what adults think. Public school for young children, in my opinion, puts kids to sleep. Bilingualism gives them the gift of looking at life in more than one way. They become careful listeners, observant, empathetic as opposed to loud, obnoxious grabbers. Just understand that these education debates are created by adults for their entertainment. You should read all of Maria Montessori’s books on education. She is the only educator that approached the project with a method. What nerve! Of course, she was an M.D., a Ph.D., an anthropologist and a spiritual/religious person. Her picture was on some denomination of Italian paper money. Can’t remember which one, but I have one my desk. (Would Americans put a picture of a scientist or educator on a piece of money?) Anyway, Mussolini closed all her schools in Italy, so she went to India and opened schools there, and in Mexico. Having whispered something complimentary about Texas schools, I have to say that they were segregated and corporal punishment was A-okay, both of which tendencies I find repulsive. I remember a boy getting spanked with a paddle in front of the class in 1st grade. I had no idea what he had done but resolved on the spot to watch my breath. The adult involved in the spanking looked ridiculous! Textbook revisionism in this way is a waste of money, but, hey, the adults find it entertaining. Charge elementary school teachers to teach in a way that interests children, and they’d all have to go home. I’ve seen them going nuts about their new “material” — stickers, et cetera. Gad! It’s expensive to set up a Montessori classroom, but you only have to do it once, and all the children read by age six, most before then. They learn to read together, using the Montessori material. Most of the new junk every fall that comes out for teachers is sort of derived from Montessori materials (in new colors). But there is no sense in arguing any of these things with school boards! They are going to do what they damn well want to, and they take great pride in it. Besides, Montessori classrooms in elementary schools would put thetextbook publishers out of business, and that would be hard on the adults who are absorbed by them.

    • taliesinknol permalink
      May 25, 2010 1:51 pm

      As it is, _no_ adult or child I’ve met has learned to read in school. (And my school’s standardized tests put it in the “unaccredited” category. I however, learned to sight read (none of the phonetic crap) when I was ~7, and read at college levels in middle school, when 60% of my fellow classmates at the time read _below_ a third grade level. But then again, my family had money for literally thousands of books, a there was always a parent to teach me to read or read with me. Now I’m in a language class I’ve stuck with for years, and unlike my 7 year old self, I don’t find it easy at all. In fact, compared to my younger self, four years of teaching saw me go from large-font picture books to 900 page chapter books. Four years of High School foreign language, and if I was compared to a native speaker, I’d be considered autistic.
      Public schools _do not_ focus on education. They focus on following their little processes for daycare of students. The money isn’t usually the problem either; they spend ridiculous sums of money…on hall monitors and gadgets. For instance, my school gave every student a laptop to use. (The damn things were useless, you couldn’t print, and the internet almost never worked, they were expensive paper weights.) They even spent a full $100 _million_ on a new building. Then they went over budget and started firing art and language teachers… but while they circled the financial drain, the administration felt that they had to hire half a dozen security guards to keep students in school. The schools have turned into bureaucracies, all “conformity” and processes, not learning.

      • May 27, 2010 11:15 pm

        TK: I agree that there’s way too much standardization and bureaucracy in public education, but in the end it all depends on the quality of the individual schools, teachers and students. I’m amazed by the rigorous education my son is getting in kindergarten, and his classmates are surprisingly sharp. Of course, he’s lucky enough to be attending a good public school.

        In schools with a lot of unruly students, the teachers have to focus more on keeping order. Meanwhile, nobody gets educated. (I wonder whatever happened to reform schools. The troublemakers should just be yanked out of public school and “re-educated” elsewhere.)

    • May 27, 2010 11:09 pm

      Linda: I’m all in favor of studying foreign languages. Our junior high school had a fantastic four-language “sampler” course spread over two years. We took a semester each of German, Latin, French and Spanish so we could decide on the language we wanted to study in high school. (I loved Latin but correctly predicted that all those declensions would be a pain… so I opted for French.) What amazes me is that I still remember so much of the three languages I decided not to study.

      What I object to is “stealth bilingualism” — the creeping infiltration of Spanish into our daily lives, with the implication that we’d all better learn it because it’s the language of the future in the U.S. Seems like a misguided effort to appear liberal, open-minded and generous, but we’re unconsciously keeping the immigrants in their place (as unskilled laborers) and, at the same time, opening a kind of linguistic Pandora’s Box. Once Spanish gains a foothold as a legitimate second language here, there’s no stuffing it back inside the box.

      • Surprise permalink
        April 6, 2012 6:21 am

        Heh, as a liberal San Franciscan, I have to say that not all progressives are on the multi-cultural bandwagon (at least not this one). When I visited Russia, I learned Russian, when I visited Mexico, I learned Spanish. I expect the same courtesy from those who visit (or plan to stay a long time) here: please learn English.

        All students enrolled in public schools should be taught primarily in English, no matter what their home langauge is. Currently, some charters schools have implemented Mandarin, Spanish, or Hebrew immersion curriculums. That means that all subjects are taught in these foreign languages. I would imagine (although don’t know for sure) that an appreciation of the history and culture of China is taught in the Mandarin school, an appreciation of the history and culture of Spain and Mexico are taught in the Spanish school, and an appreciation of the history and culture of Israel is taught in the Hebrew school. Are the history and culture of America taught in these tax-supported institutions? Is Shakespeare taught? The battles of the Civil War? Is Hemingway read? I have no idea.

        I don’t mean to suggest that American students shouldn’t learn foreign languages, but publically supported schools should not be teaching love and appreciation for foreign countries.

  8. valdobiade permalink
    May 28, 2010 12:48 pm

    Canada is bilingual (French-English) because some of the conquerors were speaking French, then some were speaking English.
    Most of the North America was occupied by England and most of the South America by Spain.
    Now, there is a buffer territory between North and South America where natives were forced to speak Spanish, but later, part of this territory, was conquered by English speaking army.
    The natives are, already speaking Spanish, now are forced to speak English as they were forced to speak Spanish. The natives, in the conquered by English speaking, would like to speak English if they were not so much “immersed” so much in the Spanish speaking Catholic religion.
    “Bilingualism” has nothing to do with cultural heritage, it is mostly English Protestants language against Spanish Catholic language and in the middle are natives who are kicked by both “grand” civilizations : English speaking and Spanish speaking.
    That’s what I think from my immigrant point of view. And by the way, Mexicans are not immigrants, just natives who are kicked back and forth between two conquerors: Anglo-Saxons and Spanish Armada

  9. Dianne permalink
    November 28, 2010 12:27 pm

    Where I am all of the Federal government offices have Spanish speaking workers, being bi-lingual is a requirement to getting hired. As well as objecting to this as prejudicial and unfair, we have another problem. One-third of our population is Russian speaking. All of their bi-lingual, Spanish speaking employees don’t understand a word of Russian. The Federal Government requirement that the employees speak Spanish has meant that no one was hired who spoke Russian! Now they have to hire interpreters by the hour whenever Russian people come in and they have a Russian interpreter that they route phone calls to who takes messages. What a mess! The local city governments (all 3 cities) have one or more Russian bi-lingual employees and no Spanish speaking ones because that is what we need here. Our High School just got a Spanish teacher for the first time ever. Apparently the Feds demanded it as part of the schools “improvement.” We would be better off teaching our kids Russian so that the two-thirds can speak to the one-third. And back to the original idea…English is the first and foremost language of this country, the Official Language.

  10. Arthur V permalink
    July 18, 2011 10:15 am

    I agree with most of this article, but I feel like I have to react when you wrote that
    it’s time for Quebec to give up French, because its territory has been ruled by the British since 1763.

    First, Quebec, as it’s creation, was only French speaking. The fact that they have been conquered doesn’t mean they have to adopt the language of their new leaders.
    This situation is very different from the one where immigrant arrived in a new country.
    The French canadian were there first, and, at the beginning, they outnumbered the English-speaking canadian.

    But even if you think they should have embraced English, it would have been almost impossible to do so, even after 250 years, because the process of changing the language of an entire population (an homogeneous one) is difficult and cannot be done as fast as you may think.

    If you travel to europe you’ll see that many minorities have kepts their old language, even centuries after being integrated in a larger entity.

    For instance, the Spanish Province of Catalonia has merged with Spain in the 15th century, and Spanish has been imposed as the only official language at the end of the 17th century.
    But, despite the efforts of the spanish government, the province has never lost it’s orginal language, the catalan.
    If you’ve ever have the chance to travel there, you’ll find that the main spoken language is the catalan (even though everything is translated and almost everyone understand both spanish and catalan).

    So my point is, you shouldn’t expect a population to change language just because you told them to. As long as they will find a community big enough where they can use only their own language, they won’t adopt the new one.

    That’s why Quebec has kept French has unique and official language.

    And that’s, I think, also why the new Hispanic immigrants don’t adopt English as fast as the immigrants from the previous century did. Because they were able to create very large communities were Spanish is the main language.

    Voilà! I’m sorry if I went a little off topic,
    and also forgive my poor language, as you may have understood, I’m not a native English speaker.

    un ami,

  11. July 18, 2011 12:30 pm

    Arthur: I appreciate your good-natured response to a very sensitive topic for French-speaking Canadians. One point I need to clear up: I wasn’t implying that Quebec should convert to English… sorry if I gave that impression. No, Quebec would lose its distinctive character if the French language were to disappear, and I’m all in favor of Quebec keeping its “esprit francaise.”

    Instead, I was reacting to the removal of English from the formerly bilingual signs in Quebec. It struck me as a deliberate gesture of defiance toward Anglophone Canadians and other English-speaking visitors. That’s why I said, “It’s been 250 years, mes amis… time you got used to it.”: In other words, while Quebec deserves to keep its distinctive French character and language, it also needs to remember that it’s part of a predominantly English-speaking country. C’est tout. To me, that seems like the ideal moderate stance between assimilation and separatism.

  12. Ami permalink
    November 7, 2011 11:26 am

    Bilingualism. It’s a concept. It’s plain and simple. When in Rome……

    If people want to immigrate to the US then they will have to learn English if they want to find a decent paying job. If not…so be it. Americans are not afforded such luxuries when they re-locate abroad. If anyone says this isn’t true, please let me know where we Americans can go and live and make good money when we don’t speak the language. Yet OUR students are EXPECTED to learn a foreign language in school. Why? To accommodate EVERYONE ELSE.

    Don’t get me wrong. I took four years of Spanish in high school and it was my major in college. But that doesn’t mean EVERYONE ELSE wants to learn a foreign language! And some people are hopelessly LOST at it.

    A friend of mine immigrated from Poland to Australia LONG before the CONCEPT of bilingual education was even considered. She was 16 when her family moved. She had to go to high school in Australia and LEARN ENGLISH with no “bilingual education”. By 17 she spoke English FLUENTLY. After that they moved to the US.

    We need to stop the coddling. At the same time, as has been pointed out, if over time immigration demographics change the “language mosaic” in this country we MAY all have to adapt….but then by THAT time MOST people will probably be bilingual ANYWAY.

    My point is no one should be forced. Just understand what you’re up against if you don’t adapt.

  13. Beth White permalink
    January 26, 2012 7:59 pm

    I had a bumper sticker made that reads “live here? learn the language.”
    If you feel the same way, have one made too. I ordered it online; cost $2.99, no tax or shipping, came in 5 days.
    I drive through heavily populated latino areas all day long, hoping they understand my meaning.
    I’m SOOOOO sick of seeing everything translated to spanish.
    I taught esl for one year, so some are interested in learning, but my opinion the majority are not.

    • valdobiade permalink
      January 26, 2012 8:59 pm

      I think you’d be more successful if your bumper sticker would read:

      “Vivo aqui? Aprenda la lengua!”

  14. Beth White permalink
    January 27, 2012 9:07 pm

    I thought about that, but I wanted to spread the word to Americans, and to any Hispanics who can read it, that I am voicing my opinion and hope that others will join in. I wish I could afford a billboard. I still may have one printed in Spanish. The day I do that…look out.

  15. skb8721 permalink
    April 11, 2012 1:30 pm

    In Louisiana (former French colony) we have a large indigenous French-speaking population and a statewide French Immersion program; my two children are or have been in it, and I think it’s very successful. I think it’s good for educated persons to know more than one language, even if only for self-edification . . . not that I am the poster boy for speaking a non-English language, tho’ I can read French and Spanish well.

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  18. July 4, 2014 4:46 am

    I agree with your post whole-heartedly. The immigrant populations should be asked be adapt to the language, culture and laws of their host country. Sadly, throughout Europe today, the host countries are desperately trying to alter their own customs and culture to accommodate the immigrants (especially Muslim immigrants)
    Note that Europeans going to Islamic countries trying to establish western cultural values would never happen. Some of them might even be killed. It’s blatant cowardice on part of Europe to give up its cultural heritage of hundreds of years so easily.

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