Saturday, August 11, 2012

Immigrants Should Learn the Language

This a complaint I often hear from xenophobes who make a lot of unsubstantiated assumptions about those who have migrated to the United States. Just a week ago -- as we were getting ready to send our daughter to China -- I heard a father whining to his daughter in the waiting room of our physician's office. 

"We're in America, right? Just checking, because this is the only magazine in here in English." Setting a fine example for his daughter, he complained that the issue of Time he picked up was the only thing he could read on that particular table. He did not check the magazine rack, nor did he notice that all of the other magazines were the exact same issue of a new, Spanish-language publication, which had clearly been dumped in the office as a way to get quick attention. And of course he did not see the problem in terms of his own limitations, as in "I wish I had studied more languages."

"We're not in Spain," said he. "Or Mexico," she added. As our daughter approaches fluency in four languages, this young lady is learning to avoid knowing more than one.

I was reminded of this scene when I found the map below among the files in my "to-be-blogged" folder. It is essentially a 1491 linguistic map of North America. Some of these language groups persist at some level, but most of the linguistic diversity of the continent has been lost in the "long night of these 500 years," as Manu Chao has called the colonial and post-colonial period.

Lost details of the credit for this map -- feel free to inform me!
Even thinking about the post-conquest period, the English-only crowd suffers from some problematic misconceptions. In South Texas I once heard a winter visitor from Nebraska complain that "these people move here without bothering to learn the language." Aside from the basic rudeness of the "these people" nomenclature, the comment ignored the fact that Texas was Spanish-speaking for the majority of the past 500 years, and that she and I were more recent migrants than many of "these people."

She also repeated a common error, which is that whenever people are speaking a language other than English, it is because they cannot speak English, or because they are somehow conspiring against any English speakers in the room. Sadly, many of my fellow citizens just have too little experience in multilingual environments to understand how rarely either of these conditions holds true.

When my own ancestors arrived on these shores -- in 1609 Virginia and 1620 Plymouth -- they did not learn Algonquin languages, preferring to bring English with them. By the time the first Bohanan landed in Boston in 1734, he presumably had to adjust from Gaelic to English, but he had surely picked up some of that already from his shipmates/captors.

While working on this post, I also had the pleasure of watching a movie that is already one of my favorites -- The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. Among the many other virtues of these witty Kiwi entertainers is their embrace of the Maori language in their performances.

I close this post with a map that is a bit better known among geographers. It depicts political boundaries in continental Africa (prior to the formation of South Sudan) and the languages and language groups of the continent prior to European invasions. Since many boundaries were set by people who had not even visited the places they were ruling, cultural geography was rarely reflected in the lines that were drawn. I cannot help but notice that the dividing line for the current division in Mali is corresponds precisely with linguistic boundaries.

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