Archive for the 'Multilingualism' Category

May 29 2006

Worry Over English Erosion Hardly New

The way we English-speaking Americans see ourselves at home and in the world is necessarily changing. No matter how often we hear that we live in a big, diverse, multicultural country and a global economy, it still surprises us to see English as just one of our languages, not the exclusive one.

That’s because many of us didn’t grow up with language pluralism. The multilingual packaging that frustrated the Sunday shopper is the result of the demands of a global marketplace that blossomed in the 1990s.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1992 by the first President Bush, requires multilingual packaging. Companies want to sell to Mexico and Canada as well as the United States without changing their packages. North America is one big store, and customers are a picky lot.

Mexican law requires that if you want to sell your widgets retail in Mexico, the label information in Spanish must be equally displayed with the English. To put it more plainly: The English can’t be bigger or more prominent on the packaging than the Spanish.

To make Canadian customers happy, a manufacturer will want not only to be sure the commercial information is in French but that the French is idiomatic, as spoken in Quebec, not in Paris.

Americans have been worrying about the erosion of English for decades. It may be some consolation to know that our neighbors in Quebec complain that, despite their best efforts to foster French, English remains the dominant language in the world for business, science and commerce.

That doesn’t mean English will be our sole language. The 2000 Census also found that 47 million people — almost one in five — speak a language other than English at home. The vast majority said they also speak English well. Only about 8 percent of people said they spoke English less than very well.

The reality is that votes in the Senate declaring English the “national language” and the “common and unifying language” were purely symbolic. The measures wouldn’t change a thing, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said. In this country, federal law protects the rights of those who speak other languages.

A brochure, “Federal Protections Against National Origin Discrimination” by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, explains that federal laws prohibit discrimination based on a person’s national origin, ancestry, culture or language.

“This means,” the brochure says, “people cannot be denied equal opportunity because they or their family are from another country, because they have a name or accent associated with a national origin group, because they participate in certain customs associated with a national origin group, or because they are married to or associate with people of a certain national origin.”

The brochure is available in 17 languages, including English.

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May 29 2006

Ariz. Tribes Unsure What Hayworth Means

Rep. J.D. Hayworth is considered a friend to Arizona’s tribes. But sometimes they don’t speak the same language. Sometimes, for example, Hayworth speaks in overblown rhetoric and ends up insulting centuries of language and tradition.

Such was the case when Hayworth signed a letter written by Rep. Steve King, complaining about multilingual ballots. The unspoken target was Spanish speakers, a political can’t-miss these days.

But the words ricocheted toward the reservations in Hayworth’s district.

The letter bemoaned a “linguistic divide” in the country. It also said government actions like printing ballots in different languages “contradict the ‘Melting Pot’ ideal” and are a “serious affront” to previous generations of immigrants who learned English.

Applied to recent immigrants from Mexico, those statements reflect a mind-set on the border debate.

Applied to the Indian reservations in Arizona, those statements sound as if Hayworth is against tribal members speaking Navajo or Hopi or Apache.

Talk of different languages hurting the ideals of the United States just doesn’t translate.

“I’m not sure what that means,” said John Lewis, executive director of the Intertribal Council of Arizona, after I asked him about the term “linguistic divide.”

The fear of languages other than English does not apply on reservations, Lewis said. Tribes fight to keep their languages alive as part of their way of life. That’s why the language Hayworth signed off on is puzzling to many tribal members who saw Hayworth as a friend.

“I’m not sure what his intent was, and there’s different ways to interpret what he said,” Lewis said. “I’m not sure how far he was going.”

Hayworth declined weeks of requests for a phone interview on the subject. In a written statement, released from his congressional office, he talks about making “an exception” for Native Americans. But it’s not clear whether that exception is meant to apply to the “linguistic divide” rhetoric or to the portions of the Voting Rights Act he wants to ditch.

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May 29 2006

In the U.S. and Europe, Tensions Between a National and Minority Languages

After the Senate’s recent vote to make English the “national language” of the United States, an avalanche of accusations accumulated, suggesting much illiberal villainy. The Senate’s enshrinement of English in the immigration bill it approved last week was cautious: the proposed law says the government must ” preserve and enhance the role of English,” but it leaves intact federal laws requiring multilingual materials and services. Yet some critics immediately attacked it as xenophobic, even racist.

But perhaps, to put things in a broader perspective, it may help to step outside the United States’ debates about English and look at a situation that is its precise opposite. A few months ago officials from the European Union scrutinized Germany’s compliance with the 1992 European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, a counterweight to the very idea of official languages. It stresses what it calls “the value of interculturalism and multilingualism.” It demands that treaty participants “promote regional or minority languages,” encourage their use, create political links among their speakers, guarantee access to them in criminal and civil proceedings, and encourage their presence in television and radio. Procedures were established for monitoring compliance with this project.

In March a European Union “committee of experts,” as they are officially called, issued a 168-page report (available at after examining Germany’s compliance. The gist of it is that in Germany “more determined measures are needed to encourage the use of regional or minority languages in economic and social life.” Germany is, for example, asked to “remedy the existing shortage of Lower Sorbian-speaking teachers,” to “develop and implement the educational model for North Frisian proposed by the North Frisian speakers” and “reverse the decline in study and research opportunities for Low German, Sater Frisian and Lower Sorbian.” Germany’s response in a 50-page appendix did little to mitigate the righteous sentiments of the final verdict.

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