August 4, 2008

Multilingual Society

There were two interesting stories about multilingualism today. First, there was a story here about high school officials in New Orleans moving to enact an English-only rule for valedictory speeches after two Vietnamese co-valedictorians said a few words in Vietnamese (seen on Angry Asian Man). Second, there was a story in the NY Times about Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Spanish tutor.

The notion of a multi-lingual America, in my opinion, is a complex one. Being the most diverse nation on earth, most immigrants to this country come from a background in which English is not the dominant language, and as a country that seeks to welcome immigrants ("Give me your tired, your poor"), it's only right that we honor the diversity of the people who make up our nation. At the same time, there needs to be some sort of legal structure that enables us to work together with a common language. I remember reading a couple years ago about an alleged rapist who was an immigrant and who spoke a unique dialect of an African language which only had something like 5,000 speakers, almost all of whom lived in one tiny village in Africa. The law required the courts to provide a translator, and since they couldn't find one, they had to set the guy free. My view is that pure English-only legislation hinders our growth as people, while downgrading the importance of a common language hurts our ability to remain a country of cooperation and common sense. We need to have a structure and culture that honors and learns from our people and our heritages while preventing us from becoming a bunch of people who can't build the tower of Babel because we can't communicate.

My thoughts on the two stories are this: I think it's ridiculous what the New Orleans school district is doing. The students said a few words in Vietnamese, and they translated their own words into English so that everyone could understand. I would hope that the audience would want to hear about the students, their heritage, and their history, and I would hope they would prefer the full version, including the language in which they were raised, rather than some whitewashed version to please the xenophobes. It would be different, perhaps, if the entire speech was in Vietnamese, but since everything was translated into English, the standard common language, I don't see why there should be a problem.

I also think it's great that Mayor Bloomberg is studying Spanish. So many of his constituents come from a Spanish-speaking background, and it's good to know that the mayor of New York cares. There is a bit of unfairness in this. Bloomberg has a big advantage over poor politicians since he can afford to work for a dollar a year and to hire whatever tutors he needs. A less wealthy politician would not have access to the same resources. That being said, it's still great that he's making an effort to educate himself in a language that many New Yorkers use on a daily basis.

Multilingualism in America is a controversial subject that people will continue to debate in the near and far future. Feel free to debate the topic here or in the forum.

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