This land is MY land…

This took me long enough, but it was important to me that I say what I need to say well and accurately. I know I’m going to offend people, but I hope I do it through honest and well-expressed opinion and not because I screwed up.

A week or so ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a photograph of a patch stating the wearer’s opinion of needing to press “1” to hear English on a phone call.  This attitude has bothered me for some time (I intend to share my reasons below) and I so stated in a comment.  (Although, should the FB Friend who posted the photo happen to read this, I want to say that picking on the guy because you don’t think his coat is leather is likewise kinda douchey – JMHO).

Anyway, another friend took issue with my opinion.  I posted a half-thought out response and realized I needed to say more about what I felt and believed than FB would allow me to post (and than most people would read). Hence this post.

I know a lot of people are upset that we accommodate non-english speakers as much as we do.  I want to meet and counter the most common objections I hear.  This is especially sensitive to me because my being a Habs fan and loving the French-Canadian culture in Quebec has meant that I’ve had a front-row seat to a similar debate (with different roots) that has also caused me pain.  Anyway, here’s what I have to say:

  1. Why Should We Help Out Illegals?  This bothers me because it makes a blanket assumption that everyone who is assisted with phone systems that include other languages, or posters, or other informational tools, is an illegal alien.  I think that unfortunate perception arises from the current debates about immigration and is further bolstered by the fact that it is often Spanish that is the second language.  A wider exposure to phone systems, etc. in other parts of the country shows that other languages are just as common where those people groups have substantive communities.  During the time I was an employment verifier, I heard Russian when I called New York City, Chinese in San Francisco and Japanese in Los Angeles.  The use of and need for these systems isn’t limited to illegal immigrants, not by a long shot.  There are students and other academics, legal immigrants and even tourists who need this help.
  2. So Why Don’t They Learn English?  American English is frequently listed among the most difficult languages to learn for a non-Engliish speaker.  Let’s show some examples of why: the dipthong “ough” can be pronounced six different ways (Wikipedia has a decent article on this – American English has words derived from every language spoken by the immigrants who came to this country as well as (generally corrupted) Native American words. Our language breaks its own rules — so you have “four” of something, but “forty” of others. When you talk about food animals, the ones on the hoof are named (mostly) by their Anglo-Saxon antecedents, but once you cook them, you (often) use the French terms. It’s often confusing even if you’ve spoken it your whole life.  So even if someone is learning English and isn’t completely fluent, if they’re dealing with a matter of importance, they’re going to feel more comfortable being sure they understand the questions they’re asked or the answers they’re given if they get them in their mother tongue.Or to put it another way… Anyone who knows me, RL or online, knows that I’m trying to learn French as it’s spoken in Quebec. (All my Quebecois friends are free to laugh at this point. :)) I’ve definitely learned a lot, and I have a decent comfort level when I read and write French.  But if I had to make an emergency phone call and get help, I’d want to talk to someone in English, at least right now, so I’d know I was understood and could get what I needed.  Which brings me to my third point…
  3. Is your desire to be English-only worth another person’s life?  To continue with my point above, let’s take our putative non-English speaking person. They’ve got a need for assistance. So they call 911, and there’s no alternate language assistance available. So there’s a delay because the operator/dispatcher doesn’t understand the person’s language and the person can’t say what they need to in English.  Maybe it’s a medical emergency and the person in question sustains a permanent injury or even dies.  Or it’s a police emergency and the person gets injured or killed.  It used to happen, farfetched as it may seem to you. These new systems give people an equal access to the help they need.

I wonder, sometimes, what the ultimate motivation behind the objections to having other languages available is. I mean, just saying “this isn’t how it used to be” isn’t much of an argument.  I was born in 1961 and things have changed so radically in my lifetime that it’s almost another planet. As much as I miss a lot of the things I grew up with, living in the past isn’t profitable. There are battles worth fighting (I miss civility and manners, myself) but resenting people for not speaking English isn’t one of them, IMHO.

Or is it that you really believe English is the only language anyone should be allowed to speak? I’m adopted.  Three-fourths of my ancestry is English-speaking (English, Welsh, Scots, Irish — and don’t get mad at me, my Welsh/Scots/Irish friends; I know about both varieties of Gaelic and Welsh, but my ancestors already spoke English by the time they got here). The rest is Germanic.  My adopted dad’s family belonged to the German-American Club in Akron and spoke German (they also taught their kids and grandkids German). Pride of nationality and culture isn’t something invented by Latinos.  Chances are good that your grandparents or great-grandparents kept some of their language alive, too, if they were non-English speakers.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Offering people an option that lets them get the help they need in a language they understand doesn’t have to take anything from you. America is supposed to be about bringing different people together, though I’ve always kind of thought the melting pot image was wrong.  We’re more like a stew in this country, bringing together lots of different ingredients and arriving at a unique flavor that’s a combination of all of them. Those of us who are here and speak English, can we make sure our ingredient isn’t contempt or hatred for those who don’t?

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