The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘English language’

ON LANGUAGE

I recently commented on a post by one of my favorite bloggers on Word Press, Sylver Blaque.  She and I normally find ourselves in agreement but in the case of this particular post regarding requiring English as a language for all people who live in this country, we disagreed.

I supported the idea and would like to explain my rationale.

In my very early posts I often spoke of my grandmother who came to the United States at the age of 9 and spoke no English.  Thanks to her aunt and a dictionary she learned the language.  She received no formal education as she had to work to support herself and contribute to her aunt and uncle who provided her food and lodging.  This was not unusual for the immigrants who came here at the turn of the 20th century.

In a recent post https://juwannadoright.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/be-afraidbe-very-afraid/, I addressed the requirements we hold for those who have immigrated to the United States and mentioned that one of the requirements to be accepted for citizenship is that these resident aliens must pass a test about how the government is structured and who is currently serving in public office.

It is interesting that at a time when we are becoming more “inclusive” in terms of allowing people to be informed about matters of public interest in languages with which they may be more conversant, it is a requirement that this test is given in English and only in English.

Apparently, on the one hand, the Federal government recognizes the importance of learning English – even as other authorities including the Department of Justice, require that we disseminate information to those who live here, whose primary language is not English, in their native language.

Several months ago, Nevada conducted a primary election.  Prior to this I received a booklet which detailed the offices which were being contested and the candidates for those offices.  This booklet was printed in both English and Spanish.

As I read the booklet I noticed the following notification, “Clark County has been informed by the DOJ that in the future all election booklets shall be printed in English, Spanish and Tagalog (to accommodate our Filipino voters).  Those who would like to receive this booklet in Tagalog may call xxx-xxxx to receive a copy.”

I have an objection to this on two levels.  The first is environmental.  We are now using twice as much paper as if these booklets were prepared only in English and we will soon expand that to three times as much paper.

The second relates to the level of information and knowledge to which the electorate will have access if they do not speak English.  As voting is one of the most fundamental rights and responsibilities we have as citizens, does it not make sense that we should understand and be able to listen to those who are running for office if we are to make an informed decision on who has the best vision for the future of America?

I know for a fact that the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates will be broadcast in the language of those who are running – and that is English – not
Spanish or Tagalog.  So if a person cannot understand those debates and what the candidates are saying, how can they make an informed decision about who is worthy of their vote?

As Americans ventured abroad, travelling in Europe in the last century, we coined the term, “Ugly Americans” to describe those who were disdainful of our European friends who didn’t speak English.  We expected them to speak  our language.  We considered that our presumptive right.

How foolish – but these were only visitors in foreign lands.  I believe that had some of these decided to relocate to Aix-en-Provence or Venezia, they would have learned French or Italian in order to converse with the locals.

Is it unreasonable to expect less of those who have come to live in America – to learn our official language, English?  It was good enough for the immigrants of the last century and I have to say that seems like a reasonable requirement to me.

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THE POWER OF LANGUAGE

Animals communicate with others of their kind in a variety of ways.  For most that is through body language and to a lesser degree through vocalization without the benefit of words or a specific language.  We humans too communicate to others through our body language (though this is mostly unconscious) but our primary tool is our language – the words we speak and how we employ them.  Language is a very powerful thing.

When the Second Vatican Council concluded in 1965, one of the most important and immediate effects on Roman Catholics was permitting the use of the vernacular language of an area for the Mass, rather than continuing the millennium and a half long tradition of offering the liturgy in Latin and Greek (“the Kyrie”).

Older communicants who had lived their entire lives with the Latin mass felt betrayed.  Now they had to learn the responses with which they  had grown up in another language.  Some viewed this as an outgrowth of what they viewed as the secularization of the Church.

The prelates who agreed to this change had the intention of helping people understand more fully what was being said in the liturgy and to be more participatory in it.  If they considered that a Roman Catholic from Milwaukee, WI could no longer attend a service in Paris, France and be able to make the appropriate responses, apparently they felt that the benefits outweighed the disadvantages.

In the forty-six years since the Council concluded, the Roman Catholic Church has undergone some major transformations.  At that time, only a small percentage of the Church’s faithful admitted that they thought the policy on birth control was wrong.  Today, that number is near fifty percent.  On this the Church has been consistent – and perhaps it is merely a reflection of the times and not an abandonment of the Latin mass that is responsible.  Or perhaps it’s a little of both.

Consider language in another faith, Islam.  The faithful, no matter where they go throughout the world will hear the imam offer up prayers to Allah in Arabic – and only in that language.   And they will make their responses in Arabic.

I spoke years ago with a friend who was a practicing Muslim – the owner of a small convenience store near my apartment.  He and his family were from Pakistan and spoke Urdu.  I asked him if he learned Arabic at his local mosque or took classes in it so that he could pray appropriately.  He surprised me with his answer, “He knew the prayers in Arabic because he had memorized them.  But he didn’t understand the language itself.”

That was precisely what Vatican II set out to abolish – mere repetition – and to replace it with understanding.  But as we look at these two dynamic faiths, it is clear to see how they have fared over these last several decades.  There has been a great deal of dissension within the Church of Rome – and a great deal of solidarity in the faith that Muhammad brought forth.  Could the language of their respective worship in some part be responsible?

When the waves of immigrants made their migrations to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries they came from multiple lands and spoke many different languages.  Not surprisingly, they banded together to live, where they could continue the language and the customs of their native countries.  But while they may have spoken their native tongues in their homes and with tradesmen who were from their country, they learned English.  That was the language of their new country.  It was the language of commerce.  It was the language that they had to know if they wanted to make a success of their lives here.

Italians gave up speaking Italian; Germans gave up German; Poles gave up Polish.  America was receptive to taking in these pilgrims but it required that they learn the official language of their new land, English.  And they did learn it.  And suddenly they stopped thinking of themselves as Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans and simply thought of themselves as who they had really become – just plain old Americans without the need for hyphens.  They had truly melted in the melting pot that America offered those who came to our shores.  They were now bound by common laws and a common language.

I wrote this post because as I was going to vote today I re-read the entire booklet with which I was provided.  I had glanced over the notice that is circled below which now requires that voting material be made available in Spanish as well as Filipino (Tagalog) to those voters who so request it.  I am sure that the intention behind this rule is to make sure that Americans who speak those languages will be better able to make informed choices about political candidates.

But as I reflect on the divisions which exist in America, many based on our hyphenated way of fractionalizing ourselves into x-Americans; y-Americans and z-Americans, it is hard not to think that we are bringing these divisions on ourselves – and they are harming us as individuals and our country.  And if we don’t find some common ground, the divisions and the rifts are only going to grow wider.

Perhaps one step would be our insistence on sharing a common language -because language is a very powerful thing.

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ON COMMUNICATION

Once upon a time several generations ago, a mother asked her son to sit down so that she could talk to him. She began by saying, “Timmy, there are two words that you use excessively and I think you would do well to drop from your vocabulary. The one is swell and the other is lousy.”

Alright, mom,” her son responded. “What are they?”

Perhaps every generation finds words to which we gravitate and use to excess. The words “awesome” and “dude” come to mind. But in this humble writer’s opinion, the biggest offenders of our time are “like” and “yaknow.” (I have consulted all three of the dictionaries I own and while I cannot find “yaknow” in any of them, the way I hear this being used I’m sure that it’s adherents think it is one word).

About three months ago I had the experience of having dinner with some neighbors and their mid-twenty year old son. The young man holds a responsible position and is a graduate of a very fine and expensive private college for which his parents paid his tuition.

As we sat eating our meal, I couldn’t help notice how the words “like” and “yaknow” found their way into every sentence he spoke – sometimes more than once. Perhaps the rules have changed since I was taught English. It is apparently now a requirement that a sentence must begin with the word “like.”

Some time ago I purchased one of those little (smaller than a cell phone) tape recorders. My plan in acquiring it was simple. It would be a convenient tool to have to capture those great thoughts that run through my head – before my nine living brain cells dropped them and they disappeared forever into the universal ether.

The problem with this is that great thoughts occur to me so infrequently that I am seldom near this little device when I need it. And because I use it so infrequently, on the rare occasion that I have it when that Eureka moment comes, I usually don’t succeed in recording my great idea but instead wind up deleting a previous one in error.

But I wish that I had it with me that night at dinner. I would have loved to record this young man’s conversation – and played it back for him to hear. In the course of an hour or so, I would guess that he used those two words at least several hundred times each. Oh, did I mention that his degree from this very expensive private school was in Communication?

If there was one positive thing that I took away from this evening it was that I gained a higher respect for some of the NBA’s superstars whom I had seen interviewed. Previously, I had thought they were the poorest communicators among us – but I now believe that their lead in this area is in serious dispute.

No doubt there are several reasons for the way this man, and countless others, maul and malign the English language. Some of the blame must be laid at the feet of the educational system. But I think that there is another cause in our interactive world – and that is the social media and networks.

We have become so accustomed to seeing (and responding to) a “LIKE” button wherever we wander on the internet, that the word has indelibly etched itself into our consciousness. This, of course, naturally translates into our speech. So I have a proposal to offer which might set us on a higher course in the use of our language.

We replace the “LIKE” buttons with “LITE” buttons. In a world where the only way you can really sell something is if it has a nifty acronym, “LITE” would stand for, “Like It’s Truly Exceptional.” Knowing what the acronym means would allow our “Like-dependent” speakers to wean themselves gradually off the word – in the same way that a nicotine patch is used to reduce a three pack a day smoker’s need to continue her habit.

I’m sure that in both cases the process would involve some pain and anguish – but it can be done. (That’s the optimist in me speaking).

I have re-written the first sentence of the second paragraph of The Declaration of Independence as it might have been constructed had my young dinner companion been its author:

Like, we hold these truths to be like self-evident yaknow, that like all men are created like equal, that they are like endowed by their Creator yaknow with like certain unalienable like Rights, that like among these are like Life, Liberty and like the pursuit of Happiness, yaknow.”

Like yaknow, I believe that my suggestion has some like merit to it. What are your thoughts?

 

WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY ENGLISH TEACHER

Mr. Gamble was an instructor at my grammar school. He taught English and Latin and was assuredly one of the most demanding of all my teachers. He was not satisfied with anything short of perfection in his pupils. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him – and I’m glad he’s dead.

 He was a man of average height, perhaps a few pounds overweight – but he carried that off well with his martinet-like erect stance. When Mr. Gamble taught me he must have been in his late 50’s. He was bald – other than having about a two inch tall ring of hair running around his head – each hair looking as though he had just left the barber’s chair – perfectly trimmed and in place. He had a large Roman nose which always drew my eye when I looked at him.

 The suits he wore were very conservative – either charcoal gray or navy blue pin stripes, with an occasional dark brown one thrown into the mix. There was always a perfectly arranged handkerchief in his breast pocket – folded in a triangular design. His tie was precisely knotted and his shoes looked as though they had spent an hour under a skilled shoe shine artist’s capable hands. You could practically see your reflection in the leather.

 While we might get away with talking for a few seconds after one of our other teachers entered the room – that just didn’t happen in Mr. Gamble’s class. As soon as he entered the classroom, there was total silence. Mr. Gamble indeed commanded respect – and we gave it to him.

 Mr. Gamble had a true love of language. You may ask why any school would even teach Latin – a dead language. But, of course, a great deal of Latin has filtered its way into English – and to know our own language’s roots is to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the language we speak. You will remember that this was “back in the days” when schools emphasized learning broad vocabularies and actually taught grammar.

 Each of us knew the difference between “to”, “too” and “two” and “there”, “their” and “they’re” – distinctions which seem to be lost on a significant portion of those who speak and write English in America today.

Mr. Gamble died of a sudden heart attack a number of years after I had graduated. I was truly saddened by his death and remember crying when I heard about it. He was a demanding teacher but he did his job in the same immaculate manner in which he dressed. I believe that his pupils are better communicators because of what he shared with us.

When I said that I was glad he had died it is because I can only imagine how the cacophony of what today passes for English would have offended his hearing. We live in a world where “Yo”, “Bro”, “Dude” and “Awesome” seem to comprise the entire vocabulary necessary to communicate. And that is tragic since we have inherited an incredibly rich language – filled with meaningful words – which by and large go unused by the general population.

 If it is true that, “what separates man from the lower animals is our ability to communicate through language” – we are apparently doing our utmost to narrow the gap. I’m glad that Mr. Gamble has been spared all this. And I wonder if there are any other teachers who share Mr. Gamble’s passion for language – and how they must feel.

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