Thursday, September 22, 2005

On Languages - And Foolish Comments

Via L.A. Observed, this Times op-ed on American attitudes toward foreign language instruction and sadly, California-based linguistic intolerance:

SO MUCH FOR Santa Monica being ground zero for tolerance and progressivism.

Recently at a Whole Foods Market — itself supposedly a beacon of touchy-feeliness — a woman accosted my son Sebastian's baby-sitter for speaking to him in Spanish.

Sebastian, all of 11 months, was eyeing some fruit being offered for tasting, so Ursula asked him, "Quieres probar?" That's when this perfect stranger — let's call her Ms. Xenophobe — swooped in to impart her hateful ignorance: "You shouldn't speak Spanish to that child," she said, "I am sure that's not what the parents want."

She is sure, is she?

Such breathtaking impudence; if only I had been there to give this woman a piece of my mind.

It isn't just that the father of this blond child happens to be a blond half-Mexican, or my suspicion that nosy Ms. Xenophobe might not have minded so much if Ursula had been speaking to Sebastian in Swedish or German. What is most disheartening about the incident is how mainstream this woman's views are about the undesirability of American kids learning a foreign language.

This isn't a plea for immigrants to go about their business exclusively in their native languages. I am not someone who believes that you can be a full member of the American community without speaking English, which is why I have qualms about open-ended bilingual education.

But if it's important for immigrants to learn English in order to assimilate into our society, it's equally important for all Americans — regardless of their ethnicity — to be exposed to foreign languages in order to assimilate into the broader world.

And if people like Ms. Xenophobe think a blond child's command of English will naturally suffer if he is exposed to a second language, they underestimate the dexterity of a child's mind and human intelligence.
I was born into a family with the potential to grow up able to speak English, Spanish, and Italian. What'd I get? English. Grandparents can be softies, I don't blame them. If I needed to hire someone to care for my very young child, I'd prefer my child get the bonus of language instruction along with day care. And all American children - and their parents - should be ashamed that we can't speak any language but our own, nor do we seem to care to.

A great read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I spent something like a year and a half of my early childhood with a baby sitter that spoke mostly Spanish with me. That has definitely not affected my English skills.

Sadly, it didn't much affect my Spanish skills either, as I still can't roll an "rr" or sound like anything but a gringo with an 8th grade Spanish education (and dammit, I took until 10th grade!).