Monday, June 04, 2007

Immigration Nation Redux

When I was at my brother’s house for Christmas (and I may have blogged about this before but recent events have brought this story back to mind), he mentioned that his girlfriend’s son had brought home a letter from school: The front side of the letter was in English, but the reverse was in *gasp* SPANISH! My brother went on and on about how this is an English-speaking country this and how immigrants should learn English that. Finally, I had had enough and I asked him, “If you were a parent in a foreign country, wouldn’t you appreciate learning about your child’s education in your native language?”

He made some lame excuse about people needing to learn English. I told him maybe they are studying English, but it takes time to become fluent. Seriously, did he think people are born fluent in every language?

When I moved to Japan, I knew about 3 words of Japanese. As soon as I got there, I began to study very hard. Japanese is not an easy language to learn. Even after three years and being passably fluent, there were occasions when I appreciated receiving information not only in Japanese, but also an English translation.

When I was vacationing in Okinawa, I had to go to the hospital because my throat was so swollen I couldn’t swallow. I understood what the doctor was saying, but it didn’t make sense. I had a stone in my throat? Acid would make the stone move? What the fuck?

The doctor saw my confusion and pulled out an English medical dictionary. He turned to the correct page. Ah. It all made sense. I had a salivary gland stone which had become infected. If I ate sour food, it would make me salivate and eventually force the stone through the salivary duct.

The doctor prescribed some antibiotics and I spent a week drinking very sour local Okinawan citrus juice. What if that doctor had decided that Japanese is the national language and he shouldn’t have to provide me an explanation in English? Because of his kindness, I could better understand what was wrong with me.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to have had children in Japan. I would want to know what they were learning and to be able to communicate with their teachers. Maybe my Japanese would have been good enough (after several years), but a little added explanation in English would have helped.

I will be the first to admit that I do have some language prejudices. When I was working for the National Lead Information Center, I had a run-in, I mean, a polite conversation, with a woman from La Raza. La Raza had received a grant from EPA to help increase awareness of lead-based paint in Spanish-speaking communities. She was calling to test the responses of hotline staff.

After she identified herself, she proceeded to grill me:

“How long have you worked on this hotline,” she asked.
“Two years.”
“Have you ever worked with non-English speaking people?”
“Would you care to explain,” she asked, with (in my interpretation) a snotty tone.
“I taught overseas in Japan and China for over 3 years.”
“Have you ever worked with disadvantaged people?”
“Besides teaching in Japan and China, I taught for 2 years in rural North Carolina and was a volunteer literacy tutor for several years.”
“What’s your educational background?”
“I have a [fucking] master’s degree in Global Environmental Policy,” I said and then thought “What’s yours?”
“Fine. May speak to your Spanish-speaking specialist?”
“Certainly. I’ll transfer you now.” Kitten. I don’t know why she was so snotty, but, when she got off the phone, she sent an email to our EPA contact stating that, while the staff “seemed knowledgeable,” the phone answering system needed improvement.

Her suggestion? As soon as the automated system picked up, the message should be in Spanish. At the time our phone message stated: Thank you for calling the National Lead Information Center. [Then, in Spanish] For Spanish, please press 2. [Then, it returned to English.]

The woman felt that (1) “Thank you for calling the National Lead Information Center” should be in Spanish and (2) Spanish speakers should press 1. Why? Because a non-English speaker would hear the English when the phone answered, become confused, and hang up. Fortunately, my boss was a bit calmer than I, and she explained to our EPA contact that (1) 97% of our calls were English-speakers and (2) raised the point that if the entire message began in Spanish, a lot more English-speakers would probably hang up.

Our EPA contact agreed, but we did change the Spanish message to “For Spanish, please press 1.”

Pressing a one or a two is no big deal. Although, a lot of listening-impaired Anglos still pressed 1 and were connected to our Spanish-speaking specialist. HA!

Anyway, the whole point of this entry is, I suppose, that I’m OK with bilingualism. The important test to apply is one that I’ve heard people apply to gay marriage: Who does it hurt? Does allowing gay marriage hurt heterocouples? Does having to press a 1 or 2 to hear the language with which you are most comfortable hurt anyone else? Does providing students with bilingual letters home hurt anyone?

The answer? It be no. Live with it. Deal with it. And move on.


  1. When Euro Americans moved (and continue to move) into New Mexico, they made little effort to accommodate what was the dominant language of that territory.

    All the same, New Mexico has an official state policy of bilingual access to government services. It seemed such a non-issue growing up that I was really surprised when I found out that the rest of the U.S. was so crazy.

    In the time of a global economy, knowing more than one language is an economic asset for anybody. By keeping Spanish and other languages out of schools, parents are not only harming immigrants but actually making their own children less competitive on the future job market.

    I could go on and on... But that is why I have more own blog.

  2. I meant "my own blog."

  3. Very well put Vuboq.

    This is kind of the same problem I have when trying to watch foreign films in their original language, with *ahem* certain people who don't understand why I would want to watch anything not in English. Sometimes I don't even read the subtitles and just enjoy the language for what it is.

    (Coincidentally, I am taking Japanese class starting Wednesday. Ikkuzo!)

  4. Everybody should be at least bilingual. There's really no viable reason not to be. All it does is improve your mind and open opportunities.