Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Column 111 - Spanish

Last week, the Bonanza published its first one-page section in Spanish. I made a bet with myself that within two subsequent issues there would be a letter of protest, and sure enough, there it was last Wednesday, and a particularly offensive one it was, accusing the Bonanza of "becoming a Spanish newspaper" and "becoming more and more Spanish". But most egregiously the writer goes on to say that by publishing a page in Spanish, the Bonanza is "encouraging illiteracy!!!!" A teacher of English as a Second Language weighed in in favor of the section, and I'd like to add my thoughts to hers.


First of all, let's get straight. Literacy is not, as this writer seems to think, the ability to speak English. "Literate" means, simply, the ability to read and write. If you can read or write any language, you are literate. Since the Bonanza is a print medium, anyone who can read the Spanish page is literate; more precisely they are literate in Spanish, and if they picked up the Bonanza in the first place, they may be literate in English as well. By definition, publishing a written piece intended to be read can't be "encouraging illiteracy." To the contrary, anything that promotes reading would be "encouraging literacy." What seems to vex the writer of the letter is that the literacy in question is Spanish, or maybe that it's not English.


My parents came to this country in the late 1920's from Russia by way of China and Canada. Their native languages were Russian and Yiddish, and they learned English along the way. In the 60 years or so that they lived in this country they spoke English in public, English, Russian, and Yiddish at home.


I was born here, so English is my first language. I speak three other languages passably well, and when I'm in countries where those languages are spoken I speak mostly in the local language, though I find that most people in the world speak English better than I speak their language.


I've traveled over a good deal of the world and have heard the following joke everywhere I've gone: "A person who speaks three languages is called trilingual. A person who speaks two languages is called bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language?" Answer: "American."


The Founders considered making English the official language of the new country and rejected the idea, and attempts to amend the Constitution or pass laws to this effect have consistently failed. There are arguments both ways, but my point here is not to advocate for or against an official language. Seven states and territories are either de facto or legally bi- or tri-lingual, and many other parts of the country are as well. My point is this – if people want to read or write in a language other than English, it does me no harm. My cable service has at least two Spanish language channels, and when I travel to New York, San Francisco, or LA I find channels in Chinese, Japanese, and Tagalog to name a few. I pray in Hebrew, and others pray in Latin, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, and Tagalog. This in no way diminishes my or their American-ness any more than my Republican parents' speaking Russian or Yiddish diminished theirs.


My point is simple. Get over it. If you want to live in a community that is exclusively people like you, then start one. If you are going to live in the United States, which was founded on diversity by people from England, Holland, Germany, France, Spain, Russia, and some who lived right here, then maybe there is something you can learn from those "others."

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