BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- I’m into “Missing (una investigacion),” the latest book by Chilean novelist Alberto Fuguet. I’m reading it in Spanish since I have to consciously practice my native language or it vanishes. My family speaks English, lest we leave spouses and children out.
Fuguet is an engaging writer with a deep love and understanding of the United States, and I keep telling both my older son, who is not a native-Spanish speaker but is taking classes in school, and my husband, who teaches Hispanic students and has them convinced he can speak fluent espanol, that they’d probably be able to read “Missing” in Spanish themselves.
There are a few words I need a Spanish dictionary to understand, but those are balanced out by the many instances when the author lapses into English.
One minute you’re trying to figure out if a particular word is unfamiliar because your Spanish isn’t flawless or because it’s specific to Chile. In the next, the author is asking a family member to critique his written works and imploring, en ingles, “be kind, please.”
Such is the nature of the English language -- it’s a bit like kudzu: It’s everywhere, grows uncontrollably and comes to be seen as an invasive pest.
That’s certainly the conclusion you could reach after learning of the uproar caused when France’s minister of higher education recently introduced bill to allow that nation’s universities to teach more courses in English, even when English is not the subject.
The plan, designed to attract more students from countries such as Brazil, China and India where English is widely taught, has infuriated French citizens who think it is a direct violation of their constitution, which specifies that “the language of the Republic is French.”
Just last week we had our own native language kerfuffle when the group ProEnglish, “the nation’s leading advocates of official English,” put out a radio ad featuring what BuzzFeed Politics described as “a Spanish-speaking ‘illegal immigrant’ character ‘thanking’ [Sen. Lindsey] Graham ‘for not requiring him to learn English in exchange for amnesty.’”
In the radio spot, the character ends his acknowledgement with the laughing statement: “Who needs English?!”
Well, just for starters, nearly 31 million Hispanics who report speaking only English -- or report speaking it very well -- out of 47 million Hispanics living in the U.S.
Instances like the French measure or the bid for “official” English really hit at the heart of the role language plays in national identity.
It’s unbelievable that educated people could get so upset about the role of English in their cultural identity, considering how hardy both culture and language are in their own right.
France has absolutely nothing to worry about -- it will always be an international cradle of art, culture, politics and law. And a few courses delivered in English so that full-tuition-paying international students can practice the language of business along with their francais isn’t going to change this or, as some fear, “marginalize” French.
The same applies stateside, where our wrangling over an official language has little to do with logic and everything to do with emotion. Instead of talking about how strong our country would be if we ensured that each child grew up with English as their primary language and any other language as their second, we’re stuck in a tired controversy about attempts to make this an “English-only” country.
English as our national unifying language -- as proposed legislation once described it -- wouldn’t offend anyone if it was properly presented as “English first.” Instead, English-only is usually viewed as code for discrimination against anyone who doesn’t renounce his or her other languages or speak perfect English.
Yet only a few totally bigoted kooks really feel this way. Even ProEnglish lists respecting “the right to use other languages” as a guiding principle in its mission to ensure everyone living here can communicate in a common language.
There’s no need to freak out about English. It’ll grow around the world without wiping out other tongues. And, in the U.S., it will eventually conquer Hispanic households as completely as it did German homes during Ben Franklin’s time.
“Official” or not, the English language will neither prevent nor degrade multilingualism. In fact, as Fuguet so fluidly proves, English will succeed in enhancing it.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group