Saturday, February 6, 2016

National Bilingualism: Good or Bad? / Bilinguisme National: Bon ou Mauvais?

When I was growing up in rural Virginia in the 1980’s, I almost never encountered any language other than English, except in French class. Today, any company worth an automated menu system begins it with “Press 1 for English, Press 2 for Spanish.” I know I am not alone in wondering when I hear these ubiquitous answering systems, “Am I still in Virginia?”

The number of Spanish-speaking people in America* has skyrocketed in the past few decades. According to the US Census Bureau, Spanish is now the primary language spoken at home for more than 38 million American residents. (I say ‘residents’ because roughly 1/3 of these people are in America illegally or as guests and are not citizens). In case you struggle with math, 38 million is more than 10% our nation’s population of 330 million. It is the equivalent of five States where every man, woman, and child speaks Spanish as their primary (or sole) language.

Now, let me be clear. I have nothing against the Spanish language or the people who speak it. However, I’ve wondered why Congress has failed over the decades to address the growing bilingualism in the United States. By 2012, the number of Spanish-speaking Americans had more than doubled since 1990, and I suspect 1990 was not the beginning of the growth curve. It was reported in 2015 that America now has more Spanish-speaking residents than Spain. As a nation, it is utterly foolish not to ask ourselves if this is desirable. Is this really the road we want to travel? Fortunately, we don’t have to ask that question in a vacuum. Other nations have large chunks of their population speaking different languages, including our neighbor to the north, Canada. As it happens, I lived in Quebec, Canada for two years, so I have some personal experience on this issue.

A House Divided Cannot Stand
Une Maison Divisée Contre Elle-même Ne Peut Subsister

Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, of Cuban descent and fluent in Spanish, has frequently employed Spanish to woo Hispanic voters in their native tongue. While this might be a smart move politically, I believe it sends the wrong signal that the USA should officially embrace national bilingualism. For this, some might think I'm xenophobic, but nothing could be further from the truth. My position is grounded in common sense and personal experience. Although I was raised on a rural farm in Virginia surrounded only by English, I fell in love with the French language in high school. So much so that I made the highly unusual decision (in my field) to pursue a postdoctoral position outside the United States in French-speaking Quebec. For two years I worked at McGill University in Montreal and I lived in one of the most diehard Francophone suburbs of the city (Verdun). Many people in my suburb did not speak English at all. So let me emphasize that I am referring to national bilingualism, not individual bilingualism. Alors, je me parler une deuxième langue, but a nation that speaks two languages is a nation divided. Language does more than string together words, it embodies culture. Nowhere is this lingual and cultural divide seen more clearly than in Canada.

The cultural and lingual division of Canada into English and French provinces has led to serious political problems. Anyone who follows Canadian politics is aware that Quebec goes through regular cycles of threatening cessation from Canada. (In typical French fashion, however, their actions never quite equal their rhetoric). In Quebec, anti-Canadian sentiment can run high, especially on July, 1st.

July 1st is Canada Day. It is somewhat analogous to Independence Day in America. As a patriotic American, I thought I would share in Canadian patriotism my first July 1st in Montreal. That’s when I quickly discovered that Quebec is not Canada. While I was still hanging my Canadian flag on my front porch, one lady barked rather rudely (in French, which still sounds beautiful even when barked) while others looked rather snidely in my direction. Stubbornly, I left the Maple Leaf hanging on my porch but was later told that it might have been literally dangerous doing so.

If you think that kind of animosity can’t happen here, then just wait until Florida is completely Spanish in language and in culture. It can happen here. And I predict it eventually will. It's worth noting that Marco Rubio has been accused of speaking one political message in Spanish and quite another in English. A political maneuver that not only fosters division but should disqualify him from the race, according to some political leaders.

Half the Space, Twice the Cost
Moitié de l’Espace, Deux Fois le Coût

Not only does national bilingualism divide a nation culturally and poltically, it creates a waste of resources. Do you have any idea how many pages are printed by the federal government every year? (Hint: it’s a LOT). Now double it. Every communication from the Canadian government must be done twice, once in English, once in French. Every product sold in Canada has labels in English and labels in French. This much is already becoming common here. I bought a product the other day from a big box store and was struck by the fact that half the box described the product in English while the other half described it in Spanish. In effect, this company lost half the space they could have used to persuade me to buy their product to merely repeat what was already said once in another language. The instructions inside? Twice the paper, twice the ink, twice the length, twice the cost. And when you call the big box store just to find out what time they close, you first have to press 1 for English, 2 for Spanish.

I don’t know a single person who regards bilingualism in an individual as a bad thing. On the contrary, virtually everyone (myself included) thinks quite the opposite; that mastering more than one language expands your thinking in ways that few other cerebral accomplishments can. But national bilingualism is a disaster. And if it’s still possible to exit this road, we should.

*For those who might be confused, I use “America” here in the traditional sense to describe the United States of America, not the continents.


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