Mother Tongue, or another Tongue?

by Jennifer Kobrin on September 22, 2011

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For years, would-be cheesesteak patrons at Geno’s Steaks in South Philadelphia have been confronted with a simple message: “This is America. When ordering, please speak English.” (We’ll forget for a moment that ordering cheesesteaks in Philadelphia has its own language, with phrases like “wit wiz,” etymology unknown). There is a photo of owner Joey Vento pointing to the sign on Geno’s website.

In Harrisburg, lawmakers are attempting to pass legislation which would make Pennsylvania an English-only state.  If passed, state and local government (including schools) would be required to conduct all business in English. All flyers, pamphlets, and other written documents, including tourist information, would be printed exclusively in English.

At a public hearing last week, supporters including Scott Perry outlined their rationale, which seemed to center around: (a) the cost of translating and printing materials into many languages, which apparently is an unfair burden for us taxpayers and (b) the need for greater unity among Pennsylvanians.

I doubt that taxpayer burden is the true motivator, and think the National Council of La Raza has it right by saying that this bill could pave the way for more anti-immigrant legislation.  Dare I say that English-only is anti-American? And that Americans speak and have spoken hundreds of different languages since before the Europeans settled here (around 500 languages were spoken by Native Americans when Columbus landed)? Let’s not forget what research says: multilingualism strengthens critical literacy skills and stimulates cognition.

Also, learning English is hard to do in America. All of the immigrants I know wanted to learn when they came to the US, but let’s consider the reality.  Classes for adults in many communities are run by volunteers with little training, and opportunities to practice with native speakers can be limited. Kids often tough it out in under-resourced schools, with few supports for language learners, and face discrimination such as in South Philly High two years ago.  If only an “English-only” law would actually lead to safe spaces and proper opportunities for non-native speakers to learn English. 

And what about the hundreds of native American languages that have died out in the past two hundred years, and continue to die out? Isn’t this a part of America’s culture and heritage, worth preserving? In my travels I have talked to many educators who work on Indian reservations, who say that lack of respect for traditional culture, and lack of enthusiasm for learning tribal languages, is a huge problem among young people.

In South and North Dakota, where I visited in August, televised episodes of the Berenstain Bears will be helping young people learn Lakota, which is spoken by less than 6,000 of 120,000 tribal members, and the average age of speakers is 60. It’s the first time such an initiative has been attempted and a worthwhile one. The show is called  Matȟó Waúŋšila Thiwáhe—The Compassionate Bear Family.

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