Friday, June 22, 2007

Dial 1 for English

Even if you do not usually listen to talk radio or read the right-wing blogs you are probably aware that a certain very vocal segment of the American population has been venting their displeasure that they have to confront on a daily basis the reality that not everyone in America is fluent in English. “Why should I have to dial 1 for English,” is a currently popular rallying cry on talk radio and in the right wing blogosphere.

To some extent we can decide how we react to ideas with which we do not agree. I have decided to try to be sympathetic to those who think Americans should never have to answer the question “Do you want to speak to me in English?” Pollsters tell us that sentiments such as this are strongly correlated with levels of education. The more educated you are the more likely you are to be pleased rather than alarmed at the presence in your community of people with different cultures, languages and traditions. Those of us who view the opportunity to learn new things with pleasure should feel sympathy towards those who react to those same opportunities with panic and fear. Perhaps they, through no fault of their own, did not have the same opportunities we did to further their education.

Pollsters and political experts also tell us that if you, like me, wish to see Democratic Party candidates elected to office then the current xenophobic frenzy in the Republican Party base is a godsend. Candidates who expressed extreme anti-immigrant views did not do well in the general election in 2006 and probably will not do well in the 2008 election. If the Republican base insists on only voting in the primaries for candidates who support George W. Bush’s foreign policy and oppose his immigration policy this could create a perfect storm that will virtually sweep Republicans from power for a generation. Every dark cloud has a silver lining.


QuadCityImages said...

I've never understood why people are so attached to the language of a country that we fought to separate ourselves from.

ex-resident said...

Re: comment above, I understand there were people in early post-colonial America who wanted Americans to change their language to make the separation more complete (and Americans switched from tea to coffee to further the separation also). But changing people's language habits is hard, especially in a country relatively isolated as the U.S. was and is.
That leads to a factor in David's point that may be more strongly in play than education -- the habit of learning other languages from a young age, and just hearing other languages. Most Americans don't start learning a second language, if they do at all, until high school -- way too late, and even then they are very, very,very poorly taught. I've heard many Americans exclaim about someone who actually becomes fluent in a second language as if it's a sign of miraculous brilliance. Whereas, many Swiss people of very average intelligence speak four languages (as an example). It's no big deal to them. I don't know how Swiss people regard foreigners exactly, but they sure as hell don't feel threatened by the sound of other languages (press 1 for Romansch ... press 6 for ...)
Also, it's rather absurd anyone should feel the English language is under any kind of threat, anywhere. It's ... rather healthy.

amazed said...

You have got to be kidding?!?!

You live in the middle of the US - and you have people that make NO effort to learn the language of the country...and you are ok with this?

My goodness, I have been to India (and their newspapers are printed in ENGLISH) and I have been to tiny remote villages in Zambia and Sierre Leone and anyone who is educated speaks ENGLISH, yet you think that it is somehow wrong to expect people living in the US to speak English.

God help us...

QuadCityImages said...

England is just one of the many countries whose immigrants make up the US. Why is the language of England "our language" but not German, Spanish, or whatever? There are more German immigrants in the midwest than English. Obviously its helpful for people to learn English, but it would also be helpful for many of us to learn Spanish, or any other 2nd language.

Anonymous said...

I'm always amazed at people who think that immigrants are making "NO effort to learn the language of the country".

The bottom line is that it is difficult to learn a new language as an adult. Some immigrants never become fluent in English, to their disadvantage. But their children will be fluent, and their grandchildren won't be fluent in whatever the original language was.

But they will still be hated by some of us, because they will still look like their grandparents.


Anonymous said...

Matt, Of course it is tough. So is crossing the border illegally - but people seem to get it done.

People throughout the history of the US have learned without having a 'Press 1" option - why is it so difficult now?

Dave Barrett said...

Adult immigrants who come to this country without knowing English are learning English at about the same rate as all previous generations of immigrants. When my great-great grandparents came to this country from Germany they came to Davenport, Iowa because there was a daily newspaper published in German and it continue to publish for about 60 years up until World War I. That was important to them because they never really became fluent in English and would have not known what was going on if they did not have access to a German-language newspapers. Their children (my great-grandparents) who came as children or were born here learned English perfectly in our excellent public schools.

I would not have been aware of how quickly or slowly they had learned English if my brother had not been researching our genealogy and came across some things written by my grandmother, talking about how she had not been able to communicate with her grandparents without her parents translating.

The idea that our culture or our language is under assult as never before is not an idea supported by any historical data but grows out of the fears and insecurites of uneducated people who feel afraid when they hear people speaking a language they do not understand or see unfamiliar customs and traditions.

Pollsters tell us those feelings strongly coorelate with education. The more educated you are the more open you are to people with different traditions, languages and customs. Now that I am aware of what causes these fears I am trying to be more sympathetic to people who freak out at something as simple as being asked to 'Dail 1 for English.' People who feel that way may not have had the opportunities that I had to further my education. It must be awful to live in fear like that.

Anonymous said...

Dave, but we did not change the rules for past immigrants. We now make it easy to not learn the language, to not assimilate into the culture.

Dave Barrett said...

'changed the rules ... make it easier to not learn the language.'
What in heavens name are you talking about? To become a citizen you have to pass a test which requires English. What rules have been changed?

Anonymous said...

I recently decided to broaden my horizons and decided to learn a new language; the question is what should I learn? I’ve asked a few friends and they were useless! Everyone was telling me something different, in the end I have decided to attempt to learn French. I studied French a bit during my time at school but have forgotten most of it! Does anybody know of any reasonably priced but high-quality language learning software?

Suburban Voice On-Line said...

I saw one of those idiotic "dial 1" stickers today for the first time. Right next to an Impeach Bush sticker and a "WOW" sticker, which is a sexist promotion for a local radio show who have "whip 'em out Wednesdays"--prize money for women who whip out you know what when they spot the radio station's van.

this person seems very confused.