Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Language of Hyperbole

I went to a bilingual school. I work in a bilingual school. I know, from first-hand experience, that there are pluses and minuses to both bilingual and monolingual education. That's ok. But I can't help getting a little irked when I hear people that clearly know next-to-nothing about bilingualism start blaming it for the breakdown of American society. I know, I'm just weird that way.

Enter Barry Farber, another WND Court Jew and, apparently, Pat Buchannan impersonator. Barry wants to let you know that English is important. But not just important-- really, really important:

...The English language is the only glue holding America together.

Really? You don't think things like a shared economy, values, government, help even a little? Wow, that's a pretty dim view of American unity coming from a supposed patriot.

Strong? Startling? Yes, and also true. People in Alaska care about people in Florida. If there were a terrible hurricane in Key West, that would lead the news in Alaska. Now put that American map on top of Europe. If there were a terrible earthquake in Turkey, the people in Norway, being quite decent people, wouldn't say, "Don't bother me with that!" But there wouldn't be that same sense of "our people." You've got six major languages and 18 minor ones separating Norway from Turkey.

Ah yes. This must be why not a day goes by that good folks in Alabama and Hawaii don't take a minute to check in on our language-neighbors in Belize, Liberia and Micronesia.

Among America's major blessings is one unifying language – a blessing compounded by the happy fact that our particular language is also the universally acknowledged "international" language.

Um, no. It is not THE international language, it is is ONE of several. And right now, yes, it happens to be the most widely-spoken. However given that the economy of the US is stagnant while China, India, and even Russia seem to be on the rise, it seems foolish to discourage people from learning to speak some of those languages on the grounds that English will let you chat with folks in Fiji and Barbados. 100 years ago one of the most widely spoken international languages, particularly in Europe, was French. Now, not so much. Times change.

Those who would destroy America could do no better service to their goal than balkanizing America into a patchwork quilt of different languages.

Oh please. People balkanize themselves according to any criteria and using just about any excuse you give them. You might as well advocate banning baseball teams so Yankees and Red Sox fans will finally stop jabbering at each other.

They've succeeded in convincing too many Americans that you're somehow a hater, at least a little, with all that bluster about English.

It depends how you talk about it. If you rant about bilingualism being the downfall of American civilization, then, yeah, there seems to be a little hate there.

They cheer their success at leading well-meaning Americans to suppose that if so-called "English Only" legislation is passed, women on assembly lines will be dragged away in handcuffs if they're overheard speaking Spanish with one another. Try explaining to the hard-left that the law intends no such thing, that we're talking strictly about conducting public affairs in one consensus language only. Maria can continue to talk to Linda in Spanish, Hans to Fritz in German, Darko to Srechko in Serbian.

Barry, the issue isn't whether people are going to be sent to re-education camps, it's about the scope of such laws as well as the intent behind them. Whether Barry wants to admit it or not, there is a definite nativist streak in American politics these days, and it is coming out on such issues as immigration, "Culture War," and English. Some of the people who are carrying on about how English should be the only language are plainly anti-immigrant, and the language fight is part of that battle to forcibly Americanize people into an imaginary America of the 1950s.

Alabama, by the way, is lucky. They have driver's license exams in only 12 languages. I've heard that in Los Angeles you can choose from among 42 different languages! We've already had major traffic accidents because licensed drivers in America don't know what "Merge" means.

First, I don't believe you. Just because. But even if this were true, it demonstrates that we need stricter driving tests, not that there shouldn't be bilingual education or that America should be an official mono-lingual culture.

The so-called "bilingual education" programs have been pretty much revealed as employment scams for teachers who don't speak English too well; programs that wind up making the kids illiterate in two languages.

Spoken like a true ignorant moron. First of all, there are many different kinds of bilingual programs. While many public schools do have their classes taught by bilingual teachers, at my school, kids are taught by one teacher in one language, then by another in the other. Second, as I have discovered over the past few years, it is actually not very easy to become a teacher. In California, home of myself and the Tower of Babel you just referred to, it happens to be extremely hard. The only states that put more roadblocks in your way are four East Coast states that require you to get master's degrees. Now, in addition to all of that, you also have to have a separate certification, a BCLAD, in order to be allowed to be a bilingual teacher. This is also not easy to get. So believe me when I say this: Barry, you are talking out of your rear.

Second, assuming that there are probably some unqualified teachers in bilingual positions: again, this demonstrates that we need better teachers, better schools and better programs, NOT that bilingual education shouldn't exist. Does the fact that there are bad math teachers suggest that we should stop teaching math?

Also, the children of all immigrants are growing up speaking native, un-accented American English.

What I think Barry means is that if you just put immigrant children (or the children of immigrants) in English-only schools, they wind up speaking perfect English. Which, by the way, isn't true. It may happen, depending on circumstances and motivation. But probably not the norm. (Why would you even bother throwing out a ridiculous statement like "all?")

But what's actually more important in the context of this point is that there are years of long-term studies showing that students who come to school speaking one language who are allowed to keep learning that language IN ADDITION to English do better in school-- because not only can they continue communicating with their family members, stay connected with their home culture, etc... (which, among other things, helps them do better in school because their family is still involved in their education), they also THINK in that language! If you don't let Spanish-speaking kids learn in Spanish or Chinese-speaking kids learn in Chinese you are making them start all over again.

Another important argument for bilingual education is the fact that content transfers between languages. I spent three years of middle school learning geometry and trig in a language other than English. I had never had any English instruction in geometry until high school. However, as soon as I entered the classroom, I immediately understood what was going on. All I needed was vocabulary. Verbal reasoning, critical thinking, math, even reading and writing skills... all these things are helped, not hindered, by a bilingual environment... when the education is actually bilingual. (As opposed to kids speaking one language at home and another at school, which really just means that they are mono-lingual in two different contexts. Unless their parents are teaching them math or literature or science in their home languages at the same level they use at school, it's not actually bilingual education.) This is a point made in the very excellent documentary Speaking In Tongues, which I encourage everyone to see.

Those who say, "Let a hundred languages bloom!" think they're ablaze with brotherhood. They're ablaze with nothing of the kind. A country with one unifying language that lets itself slip away to two or more is ablaze with nothing but poor housekeeping.

Really? Wow, I bet such pretty well-functioning countries as Canada, Bolivia, the Phillipines, Israel and India (among others) would love to learn they've been doing it wrong. Incidentally, I wonder if Barry knows that Hawaii, Samoa, Guam and Puerto Rico are officially bilingual. That must be why they're constantly on the verge of collapse.

By the way, among the almost 30 states where English is the ONLY official language? California and Alabama. Way to do that research, Barry.

Shakespeare may have turned the English language into cultural glory. Churchill turned that language into adrenalin arousing freedom's beleaguered and embattled forces to a civilization-saving victory. It may not seem as impressive. But English is now serving an even more important role. As glue.
Sure, Barry. Do us a favor and go eat some, ok?


Michelle L said...

Great blog and I loved this post. (Found you through your comments on failedmessiah.)
Do these nativists not realize or not care that they're simply recycling arguments from 150, 100, and even 50 years ago? People lash out in such predictable ways when their privilege is threatened.

They also labor under the fantasy that the US has an official (federal) language. It hasn't happened yet and it won't happen. Cute how they expect everyone else to yield to our non-existent official language and our shrinking linguistic hegemony, but if they're asked to give an inch, it's apparently a really big imposition.

Conervative Apikoris said...

A few years ago, we hosted a visiting college student from India. He returned out hospitality by inviting us to a dinner sponsored by the local Indian Students Association at our local university. The main thing I remembered from this is that the Indian students (and I mean they were all born and raised in India) had a far better command of the English language than many (or even most) native-born Americans that I know.

SJ said...

Of course English is the USA's main language. You cant have a functioning country with 1,000,000 main languages.

Friar Yid said...

SJ- I'm not sure exactly what you're responding to. The words "main language" never appear in Farber's article or my post. Nor am I claiming that the vast majority of Americans don't, or shouldn't, speak English.

My point was, first, debunking Farber's bizarre ad hominems about the evils of bilingualism (which, when done properly, is quite beneficial-- certainly more so than merely being monolingual), and two, discussing whether English needs to be established as the official language of the country, and if so, what does that actually mean in practice? (Considering that the two states Farber was carping about allegedly suffering from various language-related ills already have English as their official language, I'm guessing that he at least, doesn't have a clue.)

SJ said...

I have no idea. -_- Don't mind me. -_-

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