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.


Beloved said...


*sigh* I wish I lived in Seattle. Here in Vermont languages are definitely dying. My Mexican American students grow up in Spanish speaking households, but lose so much of their language once they go to school. I'm sure you know the term for that--subtractive bilingualism. It's so sad.

I just took a grad class with students from Greece, Taiwan, Iraq, Niger, etc. It was so wonderful to have conversations with so many interesting people. I wish my world were like.

Beloved said...

edit: I wish my world were like that.

dieMutti said...

I'm raising my kids German-English as well and have noticed the attitudes of others around me - family, friends, etc - especially since neither parent is a native speaker... I say bring it on! I am glad I have English to communicate with others but am thrilled to see my kids thriving in German as well! (My 3-year-old turned on the radio the other day and complained "Ich will aber 'Backe Backe Kuchen'!") Thanks for the post!

Juliet said...

I have noticed that now the U.S. is also favoring Spanish. But What about all of the other languages? I. for one, am proud to be teaching my boys Chinese.

morphogen said...

My parents made a wise decision to only speak to me in Spanish at home, even though they immigrated from Ecuador to the US when I was little. The result is today I am completely bilingual in English and Spanish. And have a greater facility to pick up new languages. I know some German, French, Bengali, Portuguese, and am learning Dutch now. I'm living in Belgium, a truly bilingual country, and wish more Americans back home knew how much doors and minds open with knowing more than one language.