US: fear of Spanish speaking? Hardly

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Jun 22 14:48:06 UTC 2006

Fear of Spanish speaking? Hardly

PROVIDENCE, R.I.  Some years ago, I visited a cafe in an American border
town, right across the river. Not a soul was conversing in English. But
this was no They're all speaking Spanish experience. The town was
Madawaska, Maine. The river was the St. John, and the language was a kind
of French. Last year, I came across a parallel, southern version of border
dining in Brownsville, Texas. Local friends took me to Bettys Tortas,
where everyone was speaking Spanish. A student of Spanish, I tried to
order, but the language of Cervantes got me nowhere at Bettys. The
confused waiter turned to my Latina dining mate, who, in her rapid-fire
border Spanish, told him what I wanted.

My reaction to places with U.S. post offices but little English spoken
was: Big Deal. Its always nice to find parts of America that don't seem
like every other part. What makes our northern border different from our
southern one, of course, is that millions of Canadians aren't coming into
the United States for work. But that's an immigration issue which should
be kept separate from language. Believe me, this column does not advocate
giving any language other than English an official status. English is our
tongue and may she forever wave. Rather, this is a call to reconsider
heated claims that Spanish is gaining on English as the language of the
United States. Thats not really happening. Madawaska and Brownsville are
exceptions that prove the rule.

It makes little sense to look at border areas as a predictor of what will
follow in Denver and Dallas. Families often spill over both sides. And if
a border town is isolated from the big U.S. population centers, it can
become a cultural cul-de-sac. Elsewhere, however, English dominates.
American-born Latinos, who make up 60 percent of the country's Hispanic
population, are rapidly moving away from Spanish. The two Spanish-language
media giants, Univision and Telemundo, worry that the immigrants' children
seem to prefer American Idol to their offerings. Latina magazine, aimed at
todays Hispanic woman, is already mostly written in English.

The immigrants themselves are another matter. Immigrants have always clung
to their native language. In the late 19th century, entire towns in the
Great Plains spoke the German or Slavic tongues of their immigrant
settlers. Champagne music man Lawrence Welk was born in German-speaking
Strasburg, N.D., (in 1903) and didn't learn English until he was an adult.
I, too, bristle a bit when the recorded message at the bank starts off
with Press one for English. I don't mind if the bank offers a Spanish
option, but it should make English the default language. J.C. Penney Co.
bilingual policy is quite unnecessary. You don't need a sign above 10 racks
of dresses that reads Vestidos or Dresses, for that matter.

The recent Senate vote making English the national language is also mostly
symbolic, especially since it exempts programs already offering services
in other languages. The measure was added to the Senates immigration bill
and intended, perhaps, to distract the public from the bills glaring
inadequacies. Does anyone doubt that English is our language? Perhaps the
Senate should resolve that hamburgers are the national chopped-meat
sandwich. Speaking of food, I found it odd that the French toast at the
Madawaska breakfast place was called Canadian toast. Proprietor Big Daddy
Gervais said he didn't know how the name had come about.

Move a few more miles south of the Canadian border, and French toast is
again French toast. And nearly all the people, including the ones with
French last names, are speaking the language of Katie Couric. English in
the end is the conqueror, not the vanquished. Just ask the French minister
of culture, who spends half his hours trying to stop his citizens from
using English words. Americans have excellent reasons for wanting to
control their borders, but fear of Spanish taking over should not be one
of them.

 Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence (R.I.) Journal editorial board
and a Creators Syndicate columnist.

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