by Okla Elliott

During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, he once discussed immigration by saying that we ought to be less worried about immigrants learning English and more worried about whether our children are learning Spanish. He must have known he’d wandered into unsafe territory, because he immediately began enumerating the business advantages your children would have if they were bilingual. (It is always safe in American discourse to return to how something might make money.) Obama was attacked by Democrats and Republicans alike for daring to utter the unthinkable—that Americans need to be learning foreign languages.

As I write this, I am in Montréal, a city that has achieved nearly seamless bilingualism. Depending on the neighborhood, most signs, menus, etc are written in both French and English, and you can order at most places of business in either language. I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t tensions between those who consider their mother tongue French and those who consider it English. There are. Famously so. And one of my instructors, Jessy, at the language institute where I’m studying admitted to being reluctant to read Canadian literature in English (though she also happens to be nearly fluent in English, which indicates her resistance to the language isn’t total, and she seemed embarrassed to admit to reading only francophone literature).  And Jessy isn’t alone in her ambivalence. There’s a referendum every few years for Québec to secede from the rest of Canada, but it is always defeated, and largely because of the huge population in Montréal which always votes en masse to remain part of the larger country.

But there’s the brighter, almost ideal side. You walk up Rue St Laurent, lined with hipster bars and nice restaurants, and you’ll hear the people at one table speaking in French while those at the adjacent table speak English. My favorite scene, which I’ve seen play out several times in my few weeks here, is when a group of people is speaking one language, then someone shows up who is less proficient in that language (usually an English speaker, sadly), and the group simply shifts to the new person’s language of comfort.  It’s a seamless transition, and no one is put out by it.  For lack of a better word, I always think how civilized this is.

Those people in the US who are worried that English will disappear are either willfully ignorant or just insane.  English enjoys not only the 4th largest native speaker population on the planet but is also by far the most common 2nd language learned.  I’m sorry, but every time I hear someone bemoan the rise of Spanish as a second language in the US, I hear laziness or mindless nationalism.  There is absolutely no downside to learning another language, while there are numerous upsides.

But the paranoiac fear isn’t abating. Nowhere is this made more visible than on the US-Mexico border with the fervor for fence-building and of volunteers toting shotguns, excessive in their eagerness to “defend our borders” (from what, I always wonder, hard workers with a drive for self-improvement?).  William T Vollmann’s new book, Imperial, which will be released next month, is a 1,300-page nonfiction exploration of Imperial County, California, where many immigrants who have died in the journey across the border are buried.  There’s an excellent New York Times article about Vollmann and his new book here.

But instead of seeing the ugliness nationalism can cause and instead of embracing the positive aspects of bi- and multilingualism, many Americans are doing just the opposite.  Arizona, Idaho, and Iowa have all recently passed English-only laws, and Oklahoma is poised to vote on an English-only referendum on the 2010 ballot, one which is expected to pass by a large margin.

But what are the advantages of multilingualism?, one might ask.  Aside from Obama’s aforementioned job opportunities, which certainly exist, there are the joys other languages bring.  There is nothing like being in a foreign country and speaking the language.  The experience is so much richer, I have basically foregone visiting countries whose languages in which I don’t at least have some proficiency.  Language is so often the vehicle for culture, and there is simply no way to appreciate another culture without understanding its language.

But there are more immediate ones as well. The CIA has recently been running ads in an attempt to recruit Americans with foreign language skills.  Apparently less than 20% of the CIA staff has proficiency in a foreign language.  Pause for a moment and take that in.  Less than 20% of our international intelligence gathering organ speaks a foreign language.  Mama Elliott didn’t raise no geniuses, but I see how this might be a problem.  Now, I tend to think that most of what the CIA does adds to the misery in the world, so its being hindered in any way might be good in the long run, but there is an old Polish saying: “Know the languages of your friends well, but know the languages of your enemies better.”  Here, even the security-crazed people of this country have to admit that learning Arabic, Farsi, Korean, etc might prove useful.

But I’m less interested in talk of enemies, and I would like to rephrase that Polish saying to: “Learn the languages of your enemies in order to make them your friends.”  I remember when I was an undergrad and preparing for my first academic study abroad to Germany, I was required to attend several information sessions.  At one of them, the goals of the program were laid out, and one of them was world peace.  I thought, “Huh?  How can my improving my understanding of the dative case in German alter international relations?”  The counselor explained that people are less likely to support a war against a country if they’ve lived there or speak the language, and that the kinds of cultural misunderstandings that can lead to less than diplomatic solutions can be obviated if we have enough people here who know firsthand how to navigate those cultural waters.

The advantages, both large and small, are legion.

There are many jobs in legal, technological, governmental, and medical fields that require knowledge of foreign languages.  Studies show that studying a foreign language can reduce the chances of dementia in old age, can improve children’s comprehension of their native language, and even increase a person’s IQ.  There are the interpersonal benefits.  I can’t help but notice the tens of millions of Spanish speakers in world and can’t help but be happy that I have the means to communicate with them. Likewise with French; when I look at a linguistic map of Africa, my heart fairly flutters with possibility.  There are advantages for the activist-minded, such as Habitat for Humanity, Peace Corps, Doctors without Borders, etc.

And on, and on . . .

If being in Montréal has taught me anything, it’s that bi- and multilingualism can work and can have a hugely positive effect on a culture and business community.  It’s not a perfect model, but those tend not to exist in the real world.  It is, however, a hopeful example of what certain US cities could become or already are becoming, if only we embrace it fully and encourage it with the proper institutions and attitude.

Further Reading:

The Undividing Line Between Literary and Political by Okla Elliott, 7/15/09