Thursday, February 07, 2008

The "Threat" of Bilingualism

In Grapevine, Texas, they're requiring students to study Spanish a few days a week, and parent Leigh Allison is taking a strong stand against it, sending her daughter Ashleigh to the library instead. She may have a point:

Ashleigh said she knew the day that she enrolled at Timberline that she didn't want to take the required Spanish classes.

"There was a lot of Spanish kids and not a lot of other kinds of kids," she said.

Her mother said: "We were very much the minority. She couldn't understand anybody and really felt isolated."

Now that sounds like an inappropriate class for English-speaking Ashleigh, and I can certainly understand why her mom would want her out of it. If Ashleigh is to study Spanish, she ought to be grouped with kids at her own level, which she clearly was not.

There are a few other views here I find more disturbing:

"On the one hand, we're all for teaching foreign languages," said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of Virginia-based ProEnglish, which works to preserve English as the common language of the U.S.

"But it would be naive to think that the country does not face the growing threat of bilingualism because of the massive influx of mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants. They're coming in faster than the country can absorb them."

Personally, when people start talking about the "threat of bilingualism," they lose me right there. If you want people to learn foreign languages, you must actually encourage bilingualism. If you regard it as a "threat," you may as well outlaw it.

For all the good it will do you.

Language is alive. It ebbs and flows, and while I may equate my grammar book with the Ten Commandments, there's really not anything I can do if people say, "She swims better than me." In fact, I'd view people who say, "She swims better than I," as pretentious. I usually compromise and say, "She swims better than I do."

And here's a fact--American English is the most successful language in the history of the world. While there are more speakers of Chinese and Hindi, we're the most-studied second language in the world (thus providing gainful employment for ESL teachers like me). Furthermore, the French can have their Academy, and pass all sorts of rules about what may and may not pass as French, but they'll never regain the status we stole from them during the last century.

How have we been so successful? It's tough to say. John Adams wanted to make English the national language, but failed due to the preponderance of German speakers at the time. Where have they gone? Who's to say? I studied a lot of German the year I spent in Switzerland, but it doesn't do me any good here.

With American English, we steal words from everyone and anyone. Ours is a flexible and open language, and we don't have a bunch of snooty professors telling us what we may and may not do. Our system of benign neglect has worked extremely well.

And now, of course, 20% of our people speak Spanish, last I heard. If you're going to study a second language, it's your best choice, because you can probably use it. And if over half of your fellow students speak Spanish, it's clearly a best bet. There is no resource like a bunch of peers who speak your target language. While my peers struggle to teach French and other languages, I regularly turn out fluent English speakers. It's not that I'm a better teacher--it's just that I'm working in a much more favorable environment.

They ought to have courses suitable for kids like Ashleigh. But if people are simply determined not to learn Spanish, it's really their loss and no one else's. Spanish will succeed or fail just like every other language.

You can legislate a national language, if you feel like it. You can pass laws, and restrict signs, and do whatever you like. But living languages will continue to do what they like.

You may as well pass laws that it cannot rain on the days you wash your car.

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