Monday, June 16, 2008


So this past friday night, my boyfriend and I were over at a friends house, having a few drinks hanging out.  One of his good friends, who happens to be the type of person that is "right" about EVERYTHING was there.  Basically, he and two other guys were outside having a political conversation, which I unknowingly joined by going outside (I had no idea what I was getting myself into).  They were talking about immigration, specifically Spanish speaking immigrants, and how we are "accommodating them" by having signs, etc. in public places such as home depo in Spanish.  His view was that it's ridiculous that we have so many things in Spanish, such as the verizon wireless customer service hotline (note: he works for verizon).  He said that all of our ancestors learned English when they came here, and so should they.
My personal view on the matter is that the increasing amount of services in Spanish is only a reflection of the growing hispanic population, and that when there is such a large community of people that speak the language, there isn't a great need for them to learn English as there was in the past.  That is NOT to say that most of them DON'T know how to speak English, because many of them do.  I sort of feel like it's just the change of populations over time, and that it's happening all over the world.
He made the argument that if you went to another country, such as Italy for example, that you shouldn't expect people to have signs and speak English just to accommodate you.  I said, however, that when you go to Italy, or Spain, or many other countries, you DO see signs in English, and are able to communicate in English.  How is that any different than what is going on here?
I'm not denying that we have an immigration problem, but what about the language aspect?  Do you think there should be these services in Spanish or other languages of large populations?  Is this a bad thing that's happening, or is it actually really incredible that languages are being spread and mixed around the world?


Grace Butler said...

Well, as a language teacher to be and a recreational linguist, I am glad you asked. Historically, the United States has always been a polyglot nation. That is, between the French, Spanish, English, and Native Americans, there has never been a time when all Americans spoke the same language. In the past, all sorts of accommodations have been made as immigrants moved in. California's first constitution, for example, explicitly protected Spanish language rights "All laws, decrees, regulations, and provisions emanating from any of the three supreme powers of this State, which from their nature require publication, shall be published in English and Spanish." Likewise, up until WWI, German language schools could be found all throughout Pennsylvania and various other parts of the country. Even today, in Kiryas Joel, NY, street signs are posted in both English and Yiddish. Furthermore, it is very difficult for adult immigrants to become fluent in a new language. I know that my own great grandparents never succeeded in that endeavor, and there are not a lot of resources dedicated to helping new non-school age immigrants with that either. English may be the language spoken by the majority of the US population, and as each new generation is born (children of immigrants or not) it will be learned because of that, but it has no more intrinsic right than does Spanish, Korean, or Cree. Arguably, in fact, Cree has more right since unlike English, it is a native language. We are a nation of immigrants; it is hypocritical to say that our own befuddled immigration is good, but that the current one is bad.

Jason Lustig said...

I think this is a very very difficult question and one that I'll try to tread lightly on with my (overly) opinionated approach to life.

I think national language and immigration are completely unrelated issues and it is the realm of the oppressors to confuse the two. (On the immigration side I think that we should welcome anyone who wants to make their lives in the US, we are a country of immigrants and we should open our arms to all who wish for better lives. - therefore my discussion of national language has nothing to do with my views on immigration).

That said: I think that a common means of communication is part of how people identify with one another on a very basic level. We see ourselves as male or female because of shared charateristics. I viewed myself as a clevlander because I lived in cleveland so long that I identified with others who had always lived there. A person can have multiple identities. But without a mode of communication is is often hard to build a common identity.

The question becomes "is it necessary or desirable in this day and age to have a 'national identity'?" I think the human spirit is a relatively insecure and competitive one. We are drawn to sports out of competition, the desire to be the best, we identify with our local or regional sports teams to pump our own sense of self-esteem when talking to people who cheer for an opponent. We laugh at comedians because they make fun of people who we are not, or they are making fun of the group we identify with because they are also members of that group. Group membership is an important aspect of humanity.

With national identity there is a sense of competition, security, and self-esteem. One only has to look at the Olympics to see this. I think (and I mean this in all seriousness) that without an intergalactic competitor to the human race, it will be a hard sell to convince people to abandon nationlism in favor of globalism. I think it would help our planet to embrace a global sense of humanity, but I also think there is benefit to national identity. People are attracted to smaller more personal units that more closely reflect their individual tastes and preferences (values.)

With that said, I believe a national language fostering communication is incredibly helpful in building and maintaining a national identity. I don't think people should ever give up their various national heritages just because they live in a different country. And I don't think that bi-lingual signs either help or hurt the national language debate. I think it is lovely that other countries make tourism so much easier by having bi-lingual signs. However, I do support a unified national language if only because it allows more universal access to the systems that run this country. It allows more universal access to democracy and government, to social services and health-care, to purely social interactions. National identity should never be confused with heritage or ethnic identity, it is a purely political construct that serves to unify people around a common government.

Maybe that doesn't answer the question, so here's my summary:
1) immigration - let anyone in who wants in, thats what this country was founded on "give us your tired huddled masses..."
2) national identity is a political construct that should have no bearing on heritage or ethnicity
3) national identity is strengthened by a common ability to communicate which supports access to the democratic process