California: Language wars flare up whenever insecu re Americans worry that English is becoming pass é.
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Jul 9 15:10:15 UTC 2008
Ruben Navarrette Jr., San Diego Union-Tribune
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
The language wars flare up whenever insecure Americans worry that
English is becoming passé.It's a cultural paranoia that is laughably
off the mark. According to research, children of immigrants stand a
better chance of losing their native language and speaking only
English than never learning English at all. Still, it's a fear that is
resistant to facts. I ought to know. I've seen it up close.
Twenty-three years ago, on the night I graduated from high school, one
of my co-valedictorians wrote into his speech a single sentence
welcoming his grandparents, who had traveled to the United States to
attend the ceremony. The sentence was in his grandparents' native
The night before, at the eighth-grade graduation across town, a young
girl, another valedictorian, did something similar. She included a
single sentence thanking her parents - in their native language - for
their support. The line in the high school speech was in German; the
one in the speech for the junior high school was in Spanish. Guess
which speech caused a fuss? A few days before graduation, the junior
high principal tried to pressure the student to remove the line in
Spanish because he was afraid that those in the audience who didn't
understand Spanish might feel uncomfortable. It was probably more
likely the principal was afraid that he'd get angry phone calls that
might make him uncomfortable.
The girl stood her ground. And the principal backed down. Conversely,
no one said a word about the line in German, even though - in a town
that was then about 70 percent Latino - it's a safe bet that there
were more people in the audience who didn't understand German than
Spanish. Now I read about Cindy and Hue Vo, cousins and
co-valedictorians at Ellender High School in Louisiana, who recently
delivered part of their commencement addresses in Vietnamese. They are
daughters of Vietnamese immigrants.
Cindy told the Associated Press that she wanted to thank her parents
for their support, so she dedicated a sentence to them in Vietnamese.
It meant you should always be true to yourself, she explained to
classmates. Hue said that she wanted to express gratitude to her
parents for immigrating to the United States. Her parents want her to
preserve her Vietnamese culture, and so she thought it would be more
heartfelt to say what she said in their native tongue.
It turned out to be controversial. Because of the Vo girls, school
officials are now thinking about adopting a policy that would require
all future commencement speeches to be in English. It's because some
people are making noise. One of the noisemakers is Rickie Pitre, a
school board member, who told AP that he was merely concerned about
"inconsistencies" in the various graduation ceremonies in that parish
in Louisiana. Then he put his cards on the table. "I don't like them
addressing in foreign language," he said. "They should be in English."
Here's what I don't like. I don't like it when busybody officials
think that because they don't like something, they have to outlaw it.
I don't like that language has become a proxy for the immigration
debate and the anxiety that some people feel over a changing cultural
I don't like it that some American teenagers barely speak proper
English, much less a foreign language, and that they will eventually
be outmatched in the global job market if they come up against someone
from Europe, Asia or Latin America who speaks two or three languages.
I don't like that some of these same American kids resent the very
notion of competition, and that English-only policies enable them by
making everyone the same so that no one has a leg up because he knows
more than one language.
I don't like the idea that some people would try to tell two
Vietnamese American girls, who through hard work and discipline earned
the privilege of addressing classmates as co-valedictorians, the
circumstances under which they can make the address. And I don't like
it that more people don't see the way to avoid these kinds of
controversies in the future is for those monolingual American kids to
study harder and get better grades so that they can be valedictorians
and give their speeches in the language they know: English only.
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