Guest column: June Sochen ... Foreign languages in the U.S.

Foreign languages in the U.S.

Do you speak more than one language? Do you think "English only" should be written into the Constitution?

Presumably, if you said yes to the first question, you would say no to the second one. On the other hand, if you said no to the first question, you probably would say yes to the second. This little exercise nicely captures one of the many dilemmas facing Americans. People take clear sides and adopt an either/or attitude toward things.

Let's say I'm wrong and you answered yes to both questions or no to both questions. That would be more interesting and reflect some complexity in your thinking.

The subject of foreign languages in the United States is particularly contentious these days (as are so many other topics). According to recent surveys, elementary and middle schools are not teaching foreign languages to the extent they once did. High schools have held steady with Spanish and other Western languages remaining the most popular. There was a brief blip of interest in teaching Chinese (and the Chinese government financed some of that teaching in this country), but that trend has waned.

Many countries include language clauses in their constitutions and 63 countries name one language as their official language. Advocates in this country for a similar position have support, as do those who argue that America is a multilingual country and we should not muddy the Constitution with a language provision.

Whether teaching foreign languages in schools relates to respect for citizens speaking foreign languages is unclear. What seems surer is that foreign language discussions are often linked to immigration and foreign policy discussions. How Americans think and feel about immigrants (legal and illegal) as well as the U.S. position on the world scene tie in with their views of foreign languages. These connections, however, are not always seen or appreciated.

Supporters of a liberal immigration policy and leniency to the 11 million illegals in this country would probably agree with a policy to accept multiple languages in our public lives. They may or may not agree that the U.S. must maintain its leadership position in the world. It's possible to believe in the multicultural nature of America without believing that we have to assume a major position in the world. (Or is it?)

In contrast, English-only believers expect all immigrants to assimilate quickly into the American mainstream and most may also wish the newcomers to abandon their native language in favor of English. No more signs in Spanish (or in Chicago, where I come from, a variety of other languages).

It is a testament to the variety of opinions prevalent in this country, but it is also an indication of the stark extremes that exist. The spectrum of opinion has a lot of empty spaces in the middle with many adherents clinging to either edge. The either/or mentality referred to earlier is dramatically demonstrated in the foreign languages debate.

Language is surely an integral part of any culture. It is not the only one or the most important one in many places. For example, Spanish is spoken in many countries which have distinctive cultures separate from language. Venezuela and Mexico may share Spanish, but their histories, geography and culture differ significantly.

In the U.S., different languages have always been a part of our history. In cities with large German populations in the 19th century, for example, German was taught in the public schools. Milwaukee, WI, used German in the schools until the 20th century; in 1923, in a Supreme Court case called Meyer vs. Nebraska, the court undid a state ban on instructing school children in a foreign language.

Typically, the American view has been that newcomers should learn English in order to conduct their public lives outside the home — at school, work and civic functions. However, at home, they could speak their immigrant language.

Heritage languages (languages of one's ancestors) are also taught in this country in private language and culture schools. Greek Americans, born and bred in the U.S., may send their children (and grandchildren) to Greek school in order to keep alive the heritage language.

These few examples demonstrate the rich variety of foreign languages, including heritage and immigrant languages that coexist with English in our multilingual country, a sign of our healthy diversity. Let's keep it that way.

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