Arts & Living
By Domenico Maceri
A board member of the Oxnard School District, in California, walked out of a meeting because a parent addressed the board in Spanish. Soon afterwards two letters appeared in the local newspaper. One praised the board member's action, stressing the importance of learning and using English. The other suggested that everyone should learn Spanish because it will be spoken in Oxnard a million years from now.Both writers were partially right although for different reasons. It's obvious that immigrants should learn English. And they do. Some do it faster than others. But learning a language is no easy task. It does take a long time and a great deal of effort. In general, the more education one has, the easier it is to learn English. Learning English is particularly difficult for adults who come here and spend much of their time working. After eight or more hours of working at menial tasks, people may have little or no energy to attend classes.If learning a language were easy, then all those Americans who spend time abroad should come back bilingual. In fact, many Americans come back as monolingual as they were when they left.The monolingualism of the first writer reflected a position, which applied to most immigrants. People from many different countries came to the US and after a generation or two the immigrant language all but disappeared.That's not been the case with Spanish, which has been present in the US for several centuries and was here before English. Spanish was the dominant language in many parts of what became the US, particularly in the southwest.Thus the second writer was also right about the importance of Spanish and the likelihood that it will be spoken long into the future. As long as Spanish-speaking countries remain poor and continue to hemorrhage people, Spanish will survive and even thrive in the US. Yet, Spanish speakers do not come to the US with the goal of imposing their language. Their fundamental reason for making a difficult journey to the US is economics. The great wage disparity between Mexico and the US makes even menial work almost irresistible.Of course, the continuing Hispanic immigration maintains and even expands the importance of Spanish in the US. This situation causes so much concern that it has spurred the English-only movement and the virtual elimination of bilingual education in three states.Yet, Spanish is no threat to English hegemony. Everyone knows that English is the key to the door of opportunity in the US. Although it's possible to find work and live in the US with just Spanish, not knowing English condemns one tomenial work and few opportunities for advancement.Hispanics recognize the importance of English. If you watch Spanish-language television, you see many commercials about products that make it easy to learn English. A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Foundation found that Latinos overwhelmingly believe that English is necessary to succeed in America.But in a city like Oxnard, knowing just English without some sensitivity to Spanish can lead to serious problems. Knowing both languages, on the other hand, erases the wall that separates the two groups. Spanish speakers need to learn English. But it's a good idea if English speakers learned the
other language as well. Bilingualism is a worthy goal. Unfortunately, when many Americans hear the word "bilingual," images of Balkanization and break-up of countries flash to mind. Monolingualism is perceived as the glue that keeps countries together. That's a myth. In the US many languages are spoken although English clearly dominates and no other language poses any threat to this hegemony.We should not fear languages. Instead, we should embrace them. When we understand the language, we understand the people and their motivation. Rather than focus on Canada and its problems which have to do with issues other than language, we should consider Switzerland. With four languages, Switzerland shows no sign whatsoever of coming apart at the seams. Maybe knowing languages is a positive sign?
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Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.
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