Arts & Living
By Domenico Maceri
SANTA MARIA, California — Imagine ending up in jail for signing a petition requesting that your university offer foreign-language courses. It would be difficult to conceive of in most parts of the world, but it happened in Turkey. Seventeen Kurds were accused by a special security court of "promoting separatism and inciting racial hatred" because they wanted their local university in Eastern Turkey to introduce a course on the Kurdish language. Although the Turkish authorities' reaction is extreme, fear of languages is not unusual. In the United States, a land of immigrants who brought in many different languages, this fear is evident in the English-only movement. Twenty-six American states have passed laws declaring English the official language. Several of these states have also virtually banned bilingual education, primarily through the initiative process, which asks voters to choose English-only over bilingualism. English usually wins by 2-to-1 margins. Americans' fear of languages, particularly Spanish, is especially strong in parts of the Southwest and Florida, where some feel you have to know Spanish in order to get a job. Americans don't want to learn another language in their own country, which they see as an English-speaking nation. Perhaps what Americans fear most about languages is the possibility of the country breaking up, as they think might happen in Canada. Bilingualism is perceived to be a recipe for Balkanization and Americans won't have anything to do with it. While in the U.S. Spanish causes fear, in Canada it is English. French-speaking Canadians, most of whom live in Quebec, are adamant about protecting their language because they see themselves surrounded by English speakers and feel that their very culture is threatened. So the provincial Quebec government passed laws to defend French. One of them states that public signs in Quebec have to be twice the size of their English translations. French-speaking Canadians are not the only ones to fear the supremacy of English. Several years ago when the U.S., Canada and Mexico were negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexican intellectuals opposed it not only on economic but also on cultural grounds. They feared that more trade would mean more English and therefore more American movies and cultural products in general. It has happened in fact. Mexican kids these days are becoming more interested in Halloween than in the traditional Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Fear of English is commonplace in other countries. In France, to counteract the popularity of songs in English being broadcast on the radio, the government passed a law stating that at least 40 percent of the songs must be French. A similar law was passed about movies. Other countries are feeling similar repercussions and adopting French strategies to preserve their language. Brazil's Lower House of Congress passed a bill to ban the use of English terms such as "coffee break," "fast food," "shopping," etc., from Portuguese. If the bill becomes law, foreign words will be effectively banned in Brazil, except for indigenous languages and scientific and intellectual terms already included in Portuguese dictionaries. Other legislation to protect the national language and keep English at bay has occurred in Germany, Hungary and Poland. Linguistic protection has not been embraced by everyone. Indeed, some countries have accepted the idea that we live in a global economy and that languages are an essential tool. At a recent forum in Japanese last year, business leaders from Japan argued that English should become an official language of the Japanese corporate world. A similar proposal was made in Greece. Apparently, the Greeks and Japanese are not afraid that English will overcome their languages and destroy their identities. Japan and Greece are on the right track because the problems people see in the world are not caused by language. All you have to do is think about the places in the world with serious conflicts and realize that the roots have little or nothing to do with language. Conflicts arise because of political, social, economical, or religious reasons. Certainly, in Northern Ireland the problems were not caused by language. In the Middle East, Korea, and the Balkans, the conflicts have been caused by politics. Castro did not gain power in Cuba because of differences of opinion about language. If languages caused problems, Switzerland with four languages, and English fast becoming a fifth language, should be a basket case. The tragic events of Sept. 11 clearly show we live in an interconnected world. We should not fear languages and lock ourselves into monolingualism. Avoiding future tragedies requires knowledge of other people and that includes their language.
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Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.
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