Thursday, June 15, 2006

Spanish-language illusions

These days we hear a great deal of special pleading as regards the merits of Spanish. As I indicated I have no problem with people learning Spanish--I am reasonably fluent in that language myself. My problem lies with the direction in which we are moving as a country, and that is to require Spanish everywhere on a par with English.

My friend from Gay Species has stated on several occasions that Spanish is the dominant language of the Western hemisphere. Not so: Spanish is spoken by a minority of persons in the New World. At a conservative estimate English is spoken by about 285 million people in the Western hemisphere. That figure results from subtracting 50 million in the US who ostensibly do not speak English--even though many of these, including nominal Hispanophones, actually do. Then one must add Anglophones in Canada and the West Indies. There are 282 million Spanish speakers in the New World. Spanish does not excede English in terms of numbers; the two are on a par. Then one must remember the influx of 190 million Portuguese speakers in Brazil. Reckoning French and French creole into the mix, one must conclude that only about 35% of the people in the Western hemisphere speak Spanish. Spanish is far from hegemonic.

Moreover (and here one must speak plainly) English is incomparably more important than Spanish in terms of the wealth, creativity, and resourcefulness of its speakers. By contrast, in the lands south of the border Spanish, because of the way in which the conquistadors imposed it, has become linked with obstacles to progress--namely racially-based caste distinctions, poverty, hopelessness, caciquismo, and corruption. That is the legacy of the conquistadores, and it will take much more than a change of regime in Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia or any other Latin American country to erase this dismal heritage. Inevitably the Spanish language is implicated as the vehicle for the inferiorization that has victimized the indigenous peoples. It took centuries for these patterns of domination to be consolidated; it will take much work to eradicate them. The spread of the English language in Latin America is part of this process of modernization and ipso fact of deinferiorization.

One may object that these findings regarding the plight of Latin America are stereotypes. Opinions will differ. The reality though is that millions of Spanish speakers are acquiring fluent English--and for good reason. In this country their children will, most of them, speak English only. Chile has a crash program to make all of its citizens bilingual in English and Spanish. Members of the Mexican elite, such as Jorge Castaneda and Carlos Fuentes, speak flawless American English. By contrast George Bush and Al Gore have only rudiments of Spanish--because that is all they need. One isn't supposed to say this (it's so rude and un-PC), but the movement is away from Spanish to English. Everywhere, except in the US, where our politicians wish to preserve ethnic enclaves as voting blocs.

In Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands--even in France and Italy--educated people are massively acquiring English as a second language. In the Netherlands I find it impossible to practice my Dutch; my interlocutors immediately switch to English. People in those countries, who are not stupid, are not learning Spanish. English opens many doors; Spanish very few.

Gay Species lives in San Francisco. Where he sits wouldn't it be more relevant to ask what language is or soon will be dominant in the Pacific Rim? That language is Chinese.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent observations. Of course, English is the universal language of economics, because the U.S. is the dominant force behind economics. To play the "economic" game, one either plays by the rules, or doesn't play at all. Asians and Europeans have been on the forefront of learning English, while Central and South America adopt English only insofar as it has economic value. Even Spanish-speaking immigrants to the U.S. retain their nativist language, often to the consternation of others.

Nowhere is the resistance to English language more frustrating than in health care. Last week, a doctor-patient dialogue had to be interpreted by an intermediary, who, despite laws about privacy, informed the waiting room of the patient's medical problems, treatment, and progress. I'm not comfortable in having strangers know my medical history, but if the only way around the impasse is an intermediary (who has other functions as well), then so be it.

The second incident happened at a pharmacy. The pharmacist-customer could not make sense of each other, and there was no intermediary. The word "fridge" and its variants just did not connect, a rather important feature about the medication needing refrigeration. Also, having to explain how and when to take it was futile.

Each of these incidents, compounded daily in both directions, speaks to the necessity of a common language. Not just for economic considerations, nor only for medical situations, but plainly for cultural background. The U.S. is the child of the Englightenment, and a democracy such as ours requires we have a shared sense of that context, not the least an ability to "talk" about it together. Having ballots in five languages at present facilitates the opposite of its claimants: It impedes shared communication. The reader may understand the ballot, but readers then don't understand each other. The Dialogue of Democracy requires a shared common language.

My own objective is over and beyond this dilemma. It concerns the intrinsic value to learning a second language, a value in itself. Not for the sake of something else, but for its own sake. Bilingualism adds to the human experience for its own sake, and the earlier it is introduced, the better it is mastered. This means introduction as early as grade school, but then which second language ought to be taught?

Yes, I urge Spanish. One reason is its use in the Western Hemisphere. Another reason is that it is a romantic language, which facilitates the learning of other romantic languages. Third, it's easy. The same alphabet, the same sentential structures, similar correspondence to English, and few irregularities. I suppose we could substitute Latin, since it is the mother of romantic languages, but those declensions and its archaicism suggest a more practical alternative. We could substitute French, as pre-Soviet Russians did, but again spelling, pronounciation, and French culture aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Hey, why not Spanish? Those who don't speak English in the Western Hemisphere speak Spanish (even Brazilians speak both Portugese and Spanish fluently, further evidence of the merits of bilingualism). The Asiatic languages have definite impediments, starting with a different "alphabet." Spanish, on the other hand, is one of easiest languages to learn.

Now, no one has to buy my claim that bilingualism is a good in itself, but if it isn't, why do nearly all countries other than the U.S. teach dual languages? And, IF bilingualism is an intrinsic good, it should be introduced early (such as grade school). And IF such a good follows, why not teach an easy language that most of our neighbors use like Spanish? And as a pleasant consequence, we English-speakers will know what Wal-marts' Spanish labels mean. Now this series of hypothetical syllogisms each must cut a lot of muster, but if each can follow from the other, why not do it?

But before we herald bilingualism solely, let's also remind ourselves that we also need one shared common language. Whatever intrinsic and extrinsic merits obtain from bilingualism, a shared common language remains more important. But instead of adopting English-only, why not kill two birds with one stone: (1) English as the official language, (2) Spanish as our second conversational language? If one wants to learn other languages, all the better.

From personal experience, my one-time ability to understand and feebly speak Spanish, German, and Latin helped me understand English better. Yes English. Call it an unintended consequence, but still a very valuable consequence nonetheless. So another "plus" for bilingualism. And travels abroad were made that much more pleasant. Now, if I could only get over my aversion to French, I might learn to speak it well enough to order my favorite restaurant items -- intelligibly.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Gay Species makes some good points, as about miscommunication in the health-care field, which could be lethal. Instead of printing ballots in eleven languages (or whatever) prescription drugs should come with multilingual instructions. I remember once in rural Turkey, even though I knew some Turkish I could not figure out from the pharmacist or the instructions in the package about how often to take a medication.

In my view Gay Species conflates personal bilingualism with institutional bilingualism. In personal bilingualism we are free to choose any second language we want (and why stop at one other?). But institutional bilingualism imposes another language on us, thus artificially creating a Belgian-Canadian-Cypriote-Sri Lankan situation.

As we are now flooded with Hispanophones from south of the border it looks as if the matter is becoming a demographic reality. However, I found with my students that by the third generation they no longer speak Spanish. Sometimes I have had to translate for people named Martinez and Ortiz.

Learning foreign languages can indeed broaden one's outlook. However, the nearness of Spanish to English makes the gain fairly slight. That is one reason why learning Latin was once so effective; the major differences in grammatical structure made one think about the whole function of grammar. Learning Turkish produces a similar effect. I don't expect this to happen soon. However, Dr. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, was very impressed with Turkish and organized the grammar of his invented language partly around this model.

Finally (just to be pedantic) it is "Romance languages" (not romantic--though that may sometimes be the case too.)

5:43 AM  

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