Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Monolingualism is a Curable Disease

Thank you Rubén Rumbaut for using this quote in an email correspondence: "Monolingualism is a curable disease."

When I first heard this quote a few years ago, I felt that the word disease was a little too strong. Disease sounds so deadly! Like an epidemic. But isn't that what monolingualism is in places like the United States? As we have also heard (and which Rumbaut reminded me): "America is a language graveyard."

Think about what that means! America is a place where languages go to die! They perish, bit by bit until they no longer exist. The sad part about that is that these languages are usurped by another language: English.

Being that America is such a land of immigration, this seems to strange to me. And, as Rumbaut has pointed out, immigration is what keeps languages alive and flourishing in this country. A generation or two later and languages will most likely have all but died out. Immigration across borders keeps the language influx thriving.

The saddest part about this whole thing is that America has so much potential. I LOVE America. I love the cowboy and cowgirl origins: the "can do" live style and powerful independence. The ability to feel that the stars can be reached if only we give enough heart to the effort. The hippy mentality of getting in touch with the earth and treating humanity with the respect it deserves. A multitude of elements blend and collide, mesh and bounce off one another. It is a beautiful sight to witness.

Just today, while shopping for clothes, I stood in the changing room and listened to two women discussing their clothing choices in German while in the stall next to them a woman spoke on her cell phone in Italian! And later I witness two Indian women contemplating their clothing in their native language. I passed an African woman pushing her child in a stroller, donning her native clothing and speaking to her child in her language. This is all in a matter of an hour and in the middle of a large Seattle downtown department store!

But this country seems to also attract those who wish to create an artificial consistency out of the flourishing cultural and linguistic mosaic that exists here. A kind of fear seems to pervade a certain corner of our citizenry and they lash out trying to create a circle of comfort around themselves by attacking others.

As Rumbaut has pointed out - our languages are in jeopardy. There is no threat to the English language and the American culture. If anything, our children will probably not even pass on our languages if they differ from the community language around us.

So, I say to the rest of the United States, let go of your worries and embrace our country as it is and enjoy the beauty of it all. We ARE multilingual. We ARE multicultural. That is simply the reality of our land. Within these borders are languages and cultures mixing and blending with unfathomable creativity and beauty. And in the end, we will all still be Americans. Never fear! We will still have the "can do" attitude, the hippy mentality, the intertwined depth of what it means to be an American. So before we destroy that which makes us human and whole and American, let's embrace it and savor it.