Sunday, May 21, 2006

The language question and immigration.

The US is one of the few countries in the world that has no official language (even though some states do), along with Sweden, Tuvalu, and the United Kingdom. Most countries (158 nations, it seems) have included a specific measure in their constitutions promulgating one or more national languages

As we mentioned before, if the US Senate voted two amendments to the immigration reform act to designate English as the national language last week, it was careful not to mention the word ‘official’ in the wording of those amendments.

The irony is that in most other countries, it is English that people fear might threaten their national or local language. For instance in France, l’Academie Francaise aims at protecting the "langue de la nation" from words borrowed from other tongues, and particularly English. Not that it is necessarily working but for historical reasons, the French identity is very much built around its culture and thus its language. Love for their country is often expressed by the French through the love of their culture and language, in the very much the same way that the Americans express their patriotism by putting their flag on the front porch. In other words, just like the Americans consider their flag sacred, the French consider their language *scared. (Ooops! Typo = SACRED is what we meant!)

Most Americans do not usually care so much about their language and it is not like English is about to become an endangered language anyway, not even in the US.

So why even bother? Well, that’s probably because despite appearances, it is not the fear of a dying language which is actually at sake in the current debate, it is rather a fear of immigration and of rapid changing demography which gets people so worked up, as this article suggests, :

The emotions surrounding language resurface less because of the comfort people feel with English than with the discomfort many American feel with everything that the influx of new languages represents.
A law establishing English as the official language might be largely symbolic. Or it could lead governments to restrict services it provides in other languages.
But could such a law change reality? In
France, despite the best efforts of the Academie Francaise to root out Franglais, people still talk about their plans for "le weekend."
And consider all those commercials in Spanish, a regular feature now on American airwaves. Businesses realize the value of speaking to people in whatever language makes them most comfortable - and Crawford says that is something Americans will have to make peace with.
"It's never about the language," Wolfram said. "It's always about the cultural behaviors that are symbolically represented by language. That's what scares us."

But the displacement of the issue to the question of language may also be a smokescreen for people to hide their shameful prejudice.


At 11:37, Anonymous Abie said...

"the French consider their language scared."
how strangely appropriate...


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