Friday, February 19, 2010

Speaking in Strange Tongues

Americans have long been xenophobic when it comes to language.

This is apparent in Benjamin Franklin’s warning about German “aliens” who he feared would gain prominence over the English-speaking populace:
“And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply'd and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors [Germans] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” (Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, 1751).
The same attitude is repeated in Teddy Roosevelt’s comment that “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.”
And we see it now in the outcry against alleged catering to Hispanic immigrants in the use of dual language signage. Despite these fears, studies prove English is not threatened. As has been the case in the past, most children and grandchildren of immigrants do become proficient in English. What is less known is that a higher degree of bilingualism exists today than in the past. And that is a good thing.
An ironic aspect of the English-first proponents is that few of them have ever tried learning another language or, if they had, gave it up as too difficult.
I grew up in a place which was enriched by its many immigrants. In my father’s time the children learned English in school and became the translators for their parents who often only learned enough to get by on their jobs. Through socialization with these families my father acquired a smattering of German, Italian and Polish. By my generation, many of the grandchildren no longer spoke the native language of their families. Even the native German dialect of my paternal ancestors is now a dying language.
Aristotle taught language is intrinsic to man and the foundation of society. Though there is much speculation on the evolution of language, science seems to support its value in the creation of sophisticated social structures. “Perhaps of all the creations of man language is the most astonishing,” said Lytton Strachey. We who are writers should love the very fact of language, since one of its primary purposes was the telling of stories.

Samuel Johnson said, “We would not be at the trouble to learn a language, if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation.” True, but reading Don Quixote in translation is not quite the same experience as reading it in the language of Cervantes. As Voltaire put it: “The first among languages is that which possesses the largest number of excellent works.”

1 comment:

  1. Acording to the excellent drama John Adams, Ben Franklyn got by very well in France without the language!

    Having tried and failed to learn other languages, I wish I had been brought up in a bi-lingual family. My dad was and spoke more German than he let on. His father was from Pomerania, I wish I had had the opportunity to learn. My French makes the French immediately speak English and my Italian raises a smile...come to think of it, a smile from a lovely Italian waiter is no bad thing.