I’m an English teacher, so it’s no surprise that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about language. This summer, however, has been peppered with moments that have heightened my awareness of the many roles language plays in our lives. I’m still trying to make sense of all of them, so here’s just a rough sketch of these events.
During the first session of summer school, I had the pleasure of working with a custodian named Raul who has been coming to our Writing Center to improve his English. He’s not a student, but our policy is that we offer language services to all staff of the university, which is great because he’s the nicest person I worked with all summer. His main goal in coming EVERY DAY is to be able to read to his three young children, so he brings in children’s books and reads them out loud to his tutor who provides pronunciations or definitions if he needs them. I’d rather have an entire country full of conscientious, hard-working family men like Raul than the spoiled, entitled white kids who come late to appointments and then expect me to write their paper for them so they can get an A in their Psych class.
Don’t tell me the official English movement is not racist. Perhaps a few English-only proponents are truly not racist, but they are the exception to the rule. Bring the subject up with someone who supports making English our one official language and see what their first supporting argument is. I’ll bet you it involves Spanish-speaking immigrants or Mexican immigrants. They don’t seem to mind other languages or cultures, though. One day at the Writing Center, I worked back-to-back appointments with Raul, our Hispanic custodian, and a Norwegian girl named Astra. A third American student was working at a table behind us. When Raul left, the student sitting behind me said snidely, “I didn’t know you guys helped teach janitors to read.” I took a deep breath and replied in my most Disneyfied voice, “Yes, we help all students, teachers and staff at the university.” The young man shrugged and went back to his work. When Astra, my Norwegian student, came over to work with me, however, the young man tried to flirt with her. Raul and Astra are the same age. They are both immigrants learning English. Raul may be “just” a custodian, but Astra is unemployed. Why did Raul’s learning English bother this kid whereas Astra did not? Hmm…
A few days ago, a student brought in her term paper. Her thesis was that we must make English the official language of the U.S.. Now I enjoy tutoring papers with which I completely disagree. They are exercises in self-control for me, and I’m pretty sure my student had no idea I disagreed with every point she tried to make. Of her four arguments, only one was reasonably supported. I pointed out some major gaps in two of the others, then spent the rest of our tutorial focusing on her poor paragraph organization. Her arguments: we must preserve American history; multiple languages cost too much; we must protect English; and multilingual education programs are ineffective. The fourth point she proved pretty well, but the others relied on faulty logic. First, the preservation of American history does not rely on the English language. I suppose if American history began in 1776, you’d have a decent argument. If we’re going to go the history route, we should all be learning the Native American languages which are in serious danger of going extinct. Or Hawaiian or Aleutian. Second, multiple languages cost too much. Tell Europe that. Some of those countries, including Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and Monaco, have several official languages, and they’re doing quite well. Besides, spending all the time and money to make English an official language will cost more than leaving it as is. We already teach English – to immigrants and native English speakers. What’s the difference? Finally, “protecting” English is a nonsensical notion. English is just fine, thanks. It’ll continue to do well if we don’t try to preserve it like a relic in a museum. (See Latin – a dead language – or French – dying language.) Most people who contend that we must make English the United States’ official language speak only English. Because the language is so bound up in their identity, they are terrified when “experts” suggest that our language is in danger from non-English-speaking immigrants who are going to kill it. Immigrant families’ native languages rarely survive past the second generation; in other words, if a Mexican couple comes to the US and has children here, those children will likely learn both Spanish and English, but the couple’s grandchildren will probably learn just English. Anyway, I’d contend that English is in more danger from native English speakers who butcher it on a daily basis than from immigrants who make conscientious efforts to speak it properly.
Which English are we going to accept? Just American? What about British, French or Canadian English? Do we accept only certain terms? Am I still allowed to call all soda “Coke” as we tend to do in Indiana? Or do I have to call it “pop?” My husband’s from New England, and he gets bent out of shape when I call a body of water a “lake.” Evidently, they have specific rules about what constitutes a lake up there. Will the entire country have to adopt the New England definition? Or will we force the Easterners to conform?
Can I still speak French to my children at home? I speak three languages, and I wanted to give my children the advantage of being bilingual. If English is the official language, can I still speak French or Russian when I’m out in public? I usually only do it when I don’t want people to know what I’m saying. After all, most Americans can’t speak a foreign language, so I can say whatever I want if I’m not speaking English. Maybe that’s what upsets so many people. The idea that others are talking about them in a language they can’t understand. Here’s a thought – learn a foreign language so you can understand! You might also broaden your mind, make yourself more interesting and more marketable. If it’s so easy for immigrants to learn English, it should be no problem for us to learn Spanish, Chinese, or Russian. Then when you go visit those places, you won’t have to hear people say, “You’re in our country now, speak our language!” Not that they will. Most of them already speak English.
I was honored to be nominated and accepted for a weekend-long seminar for associate faculty a few weeks ago. We had a great time, and on the last day, we got together to talk about what we had gotten out of the weekend. The discussion was very positive until the last person spoke. He said he was happy to have made so many contacts in other departments because they could help him with a “project” he was working on. His theory is that our intro composition class does not prepare students to write in other schools because we do not concentrate on “the basics” – grammar, style and classic essay form. He wanted to use the cross-discipline contacts he’d made to gather assignments from other schools to prove that we need to change the structure of the course. Having worked in the Writing Center for five years now, I felt more than qualified to refute his argument. After looking at countless assignment sheets from every school, I know for a fact that most instructors, regardless of discipline, are more concerned with content and thought process than grammar. This was not the appropriate forum for me to challenge him, though, so I’ve been stewing over it ever since.
I love grammar, and I was raised by an English-teacher mom who loves it too. I know it better than most people. But you don’t have to know grammar rules to be a great writer or speaker. You certainly don’t have to know them to be a powerful or successful person. I guarantee you George Bush does not know what a dangling participle is; I know Donald Trump can’t diagram a sentence. Shakespeare probably couldn’t either since he had very little formal education.
Bringing up Shakespeare reminds me of something else. Language changes. If Shakespeare did learn grammar, he would not have learned the rules we learn now. His English included thee, thy, and thou forms of the word “you.” His English included words that are foreign to us now. Heck, I learned rules just 25 years ago that no longer apply. You know that comma rule about items in a list? Do you put a comma before the “and?” Not anymore. Why bother learning a bunch of “rules” that have many exceptions and are likely to change anyway? If students haven’t learned grammar by the time they graduate from high school, it’s not going to happen. I know dozens of college professors, including many in my English department, who do not know grammar and they have PhDs.
Personally, I love language. It can be empowering, but it can also be a weapon of tyranny. When I was 18 I went to France with my family. A bum on the streets of Paris came up to my parents and started asking them for money. Not being able to speak French, my parents were at a loss. The vagrant got angry with them and started berating them and “les Americains stupide.” I was a fairly sheltered teenager, and I was just as frightened as my parents until the guy started talking about how American tourists were invading his country and couldn’t even speak the language. At that point, I got mad. And I realized I could speak his language, and I could use it to berate him just as he was berating us. So I did. I told him off, not with a swear word, but by using the informal French “you,” a usage that I knew would linguistically reduce him to an animal. And this big, street-wise, intoxicated jerk gave up and took off. In the face of a size 6, 18-year-old girl. I know language, and I know how to use it. And when I hear people insisting on immigrants speaking English or making students learn grammar rules, I know what those people are really doing. They’re asserting their superiority. I know because I’ve done it. Whenever someone makes me mad, I use words like daggers. I start pulling out every multi-syllabic vocabulary word, every convoluted sentence structure I can think of, and I’ll correct every split infinitive and every improper verb form my opponent uses. I don’t do it often, though, because it’s rude. I never correct my friends’ e-mails to me; I don’t often correct my husband or my kids’ speech. Language should bring us together, not enforce some kind of linguistic caste system.
Making English the “official” language of the U.S. won’t keep smart companies from offering their websites, marketing materials and forms in other common languages. Just as making homosexual marriage unconstitutional hasn’t stopped companies from offering same-sex partner benefits, outlawing Spanish, French, or any other language will not stop corporations from doing whatever they need to do to make money.
This is rambling, I know. Like I said, I think about language a lot. And it is important. After all, no matter what they say on the playground, words can hurt just as badly as sticks and stones.