America's Bilingual Crisis
My wife belongs to an Internet group where there was a recent blowup over the insane expectation Americans have about foreigners who visit America's shores. You know the one: the foreign visitors should somehow, as if by magic, be instantly bilingual. This "English Only" jazz is nothing new. It is a very old hat Americans have been trying to force everyone to wear for decades. I cannot begin to tell you how this irks me.
Look at some of the screed my wife shared with me:
· "When I was in McAllen, I refused to speak Spanish even though I knew it. Not all do this but enough that in McAllen, the signs are in Spanish first and English second. That simply isn't right."
· "Why after 20 YEARS and a property owner no less in this (USA) country shouldn't he speak English. Another thing many of the Mexicans in this country DO know how to speak English and when it suits them they do. BUT, I've seen them make believe they don't when it doesn't suit them. Sorry that is my sore spot too. I could go on about other nationalities (in NY) that do the same thing. Parts of Queens NY the street signs and all other signs aren't in English and when you walk into a restaurant that is all locals they ALL STOP TALKING and look at you. THIS IS AMERICA FOLKS. Ya wanna be here speak the language----DON'T try and make our country something else."
After five books and countless articles in which I've hammered this point repeatedly, here are two quotes that absolutely confirm my thesis of the rampant xenophobic xenoglossophobia in America.
The forum-chat group discussion began with a question about teaching ESL and the need to speak Spanish or not, but it quickly devolved into this English-Only Rant. It was so predictable.
Americans, who have an astoundingly pathetic 9% bilingual rate compared with the rest of the world's 52%, actually think it is "good thing" not to be bilingual. They complain and whine when there are bilingual signs in stores. They speak of their utter and hateful disgust at the thought that someone speaks a language other than English. Is this not the height of xenophobic behavior?
In a recent survey in Europe, Americans were seen as an uncultured and vulgar lot. A whopping 85% of the Europeans surveyed had this opinion. Having lived in another country now for a few years, and having seen just how Americans act when they come here, I am not surprised one bit. I would have answered this survey's question in the same vein.
Let me be even more frank: This nonsense of "That simply isn't right" and "THIS IS AMERICA FOLKS. Ya wanna be here speak the language----DON'T try and make our country something else" stems truly and absolutely from the depths of fear and hatred of all things foreign.
As I wrote in my just-released book, YOU CAN LEARN SPANISH or Any Language No Matter Your Age or Disposition, this American obsession (this fascist neonationalism) with eliminating foreign languages from the face of American soil is nothing new—it is old.
There was a time in America, though hard to believe, when learning a foreign language was considered the mark of a cultured and educated person. People, even poor ones, wanted their sons and daughters to learn French. Then came the xenophobia with the two World Wars. Soon, not only were foreign language newspapers shut down but also speaking a foreign language in public was outlawed.
Americans insanely saw the mark of true patriotism was the eschewing of learning and speaking another language. Just how remarkably simpleminded and ignorant is that reasoning?
I wonder if the person from whom I got that quote, "That simply isn't right" rightly sees the consequences of that statement? On just what grounds does this person make this silly judgment of "That simply isn't right?" And here is my favorite one: "Another thing many of the Mexicans in this country DO know how to speak English and when it suits them they do."
You might be interested in knowing just how American tourists come to Mexico and shout this at the top of their lungs at waiters and hotel employees. I see this constantly in the town in which my wife and I live. They actually believe, as does this unthinking person I quoted, that Mexicans have some secret, dark, and menacing motive for not speaking English when in fact they really do.
Describing Americans as "uncultured and vulgar" is not a stretch. It is no wonder that Americans have such a hideous reputation in the rest of the world. But, in the survey I mentioned, Americans were also seen as not caring a whit what the rest of the world thinks of them. No surprise there!
You know, the members of my wife's forum-chat group can hold to their phobias and hate about Mexicans—and that is what this is about, Mexicans—and they probably will. Rarely does anything enlighten the minds of fearful and hate-driven people. So, I will end it with this:
What gives Americans the right to harshly criticize foreigners who come to America and have problems learning English when the vast majority of Americans could not string two words of a foreign language together to save their lives?
Remember the 9% bilingual rate?
How would MONOLINGUALS have a clue about how difficult it is to master a second language and develop a high degree of spoken fluency? Just how would they? And, the real kicker is this:
Americans vociferously scream this fear and hate-driven screed from the rooftops when the reality is many Americans who move to foreign countries, Mexico for one, refuse to learn Spanish!
They complain and whine that Mexicans refuse to learn English (and how could they know that Mexicans refuse anything—are Americans telepathic?), yet when Americans come to live in Mexico, they do the very thing they claim to despise in Mexicans.
One American living in San Miguel de Allende said this:
"I've lived in Mexico for thirty years and not only do I not speak Spanish, I never will."
Americans who live in Mexico, and have lived here for decades, boast they will never learn Spanish.
Just how big of a crock of hypocrisy is this?
This article was posted on November 20, 2006
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