Backwaters are comforting, misleading, and very dangerous

There’s been a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment lately, expressed in English only laws, antipathy to a projected Islamic Cultural Center, and Arizona’s effort to enforce the immigration laws with a desert twist. Let’s focus today on fears of people who don’t speak English.

Colonists came here speaking a welter of languages including Scots, Irish, French, German and many others. Jefferson thought multi-lingual ability was a mark of true intelligence. In the early republic, there were many Pennsylvania communities where German was the essential language. I encountered an old Texas community that clung to German until the troops came home from World War II.

Corporations and the military struggled with towers of babel and undertook the task of organizing and training recruits and employees so they could function. None of this is about loyalty. Few are more aware of the blessings of America than those newly arrived. Some corporations had a training program that ended with a symbolic melting pot out of which the ethnic immigrants popped as Americans.

I don’t think my grandparents ever mastered English. It certainly wasn’t my fathers’ first tongue – though those who still remember him would be surprised to discover it. His A on an English paper was one of his proudest accomplishments.

Unlike dad, mom was not born in this country – she came as a girl of eight traveling in steerage with a twelve year old brother and spoke no English. But you wouldn’t have detected an accent. Neither wanted me to learn their native language – my parents spoke Yiddish to each other when they didn’t want me to understand. Many in the next generation, like me, wish we could have grown up bilingual, speaking English but understanding the language of our parents. Far from refusing to learn English, the children of non-English speakers are typically used as translators by their parents – at the bank, with the landlord, wherever. Scary? Not really except for the people who are trying to survive in a world that doesn’t speak their language.

My wife has taught English as a second language. She learned to do it for the Peace Corps and has done it here when occasion required, always to people who gratefully appreciated her help. There is a skill to it, particular ways that one teaches people who are not native speakers. When my wife and I were in training to join the Peace Corps, no one set us down with books on Persian grammar. We weren’t mainlined with Persian speakers. It was all oral, all patterned, so that we learned instinctively the way that small children pick up a language, by interaction.

Unfortunately we have had little opportunity to take advantage of our Persian language training since we got back except for a little nostalgic conversation with our Persian-American friends.

That points to a larger problem. Americans are trained in so few languages, that we always face a shortage of people who are fluent in other languages when we need them. Many schools stopped teaching German after World War I. Russian? Forget it. That didn’t save us from having to fight Germany again and a long Cold War with Russia.

Contemporary world politics requires people fluent in Arabic, Farsi, Chinese and other languages. Sadly instead, Americans try to bleach foreign languages out of the people who might be fluent in them. It puts us at a huge disadvantage.

Where people run away from the vitality of a polyglot world to separate themselves from immigrants and people who speak strange languages, they create backwaters. Backwaters are comforting, but misleading, and very dangerous.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 31, 2010.


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