Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Language policy

I generally avoid short posts because brevity (at least my brevity) fosters misinterpretation. My immediately previous post, on the Senate's pseudoaction about English as our official language, was an attempt at humor, fueled by frustration at the incompetence of Congress--even greater, it seems, than the incompetence of the Bush administration.

Let me comment further about language policy. I speak five languages--as readers will learn when they look at my other blog, [plug]. This all started, I suppose, when I discovered my stepfather's Italian-language textbooks at the age of 13. Eventually I learned to speak Italian with considerable fluency, owing to the need to communicate with an Italian boyfriend who knew no English. In common with Thomas Jefferson I still regard France as my second country and the French language as, in some sense, my intellectual home. (I am currently surrounded by Symbolist texts, as I struggle to get the hang of Mallarme', Villiers de l'Isle Adam, and Huysmans.) For art history I had to learn German. Probably because of wartime propaganda I am not comfortable in that language, even though I have read hundreds of books in it. My parents required me to study Spanish, starting on junior high school--four years of it. This language has come in handy in my visits to Latin American countries, where I am passionate about pre-Columbian archaeology.

I try constantly to keep up in my languages, though my Italian has now faded alarmingly. I deplore English-language triumphalism, with its lazy assumption that if any book is important it will be translated into English. On the positive side, learning another language affords a window into another culture. I feel sorry for those who deny themselves this experience.

All this notwithstanding, I am a supporter of efforts to make English our sole national and official language. This is true in part for cultural reasons--the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and all the vital law interpretations that stem from them are written in English. (On the other hand, I don't see any reason to prefer Dickens, say, to Balzac--Balzac is much more profound.)

The key point is this. There have been several successful multilingual societies. However, these are usually like the Roman empire or the old Soviet Union in which one language (Latin and Russian, respectively) has been dominant. Switzerland is officially quadrilingual, but since German speakers constitute 80% of the whole German is de facto dominant.

By contrast in every society I know of bilingualism has been a disaster. My Ph.D. dissertation involved Belgium. When I visited that country I found that if you addressed people in the "wrong" language, hostility would ensue--even in some cases where I felt sure that they understood. A hundred years ago Flemish intellectuals, Maeterlinck, Rodenbach, Verhaeren, wrote in French. That is impossible to imagine today.

So I must underline this point. The current discussion willfully and mischievously confuses multilingualism with bilingualism. Multilingualism is good. As an official policy bilingualism is bad. Yet we seem gradually, inexorably to be drifting into this situation. Making Spanish a second language alongside English is also oddly unrealistic. In most of the Hispanic/Latino families I have observed, both in New York and California, knowledge of Spanish becomes vestigial by the third generation. The influence of popular culture is overwhelming, and that phenomenon is mainly in English, a world-wide situation. A sociolinguistic study of Chicano youth in LA showed that they communicated among one another in their own variety of English. They had to, because some members of the group did not speak Spanish.

Left alone, English will prevail. But politicians, anxious to shore up a stable ethnic voting block, want to interfere with this process. At the same time they cater to fantasies about Aztlan, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, supposedly corresponding to our Southwest. These people should be asked: How did the people of Aztlan come to speak Spanish? Shouldn't we be bilingual in English and Nahuatl (the Aztec language)? Or perhaps it can be Cherokee (the language of some of my ancestors) and Nahuatl.

I also do not buy the idea that we should learn Spanish because it is the exclusive Latin American language. It isn't: 186 million people in Brazil speak Portuguese. I have read a fair amount of Portuguese literature, and it seems just as rich as Spanish literature.

For cultural and political reasons the language we all should be learning is Mandarin Chinese. (I had a course in college, and have been trying to get it back.)
Chinese literature is hors concours--incomparably the richest. Chinese is a vehicle to accessing major currents of thought. I am currently engaging Daoism, which is much more complex than the Daode jing would suggest, invaluable as that pithy classic undoubtedly is.

So I say: long may multilingualism flourish! But beware the specious arguments of bilingualism.


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