You Know I Don't Speak Spanish

Monday, July 26, 2010
”I think the most un-American thing you can say is: ‘You can't say that.’”
-- Garrison Keillor

Anyone who knows me well knows I don’t take lightly to quoting Garrison Keillor. Call me un-Minnesotan, but I’ve never much cared for The Prairie Home Companion. Nor do I like to use this blog as a place from which to spew my broad political views, but this morning a news story touched a nerve and Mr. Keillor has just the right words to express my thoughts on the whole thing. The Twin Cities suburb of Lino Lakes is proposing an English language ordinance for their city government. The explanation is that such an ordinance would be a money saving measure that would save taxpayers’ money by preventing the government from having to print bilingual documents.

The issue? Lino Lakes hasn’t exactly been wracking up the printing expenses publishing Spanish language translations of government document because they’ve never actually done so. To this point in time, all Lino Lakes government documents have been published in English any way. So what the heck is with this ordinance? There’s something behind all of this that reeks a bit like racism and xenophobia.

But the point of this blog isn’t to vilify the ordinance and whatever might have sparked the idea. Nor can I completely dismiss the frustration that sparks the notion that immigrants to the United States should be expected learn the English language. After all, if I moved to a foreign country where English wasn’t the primary language, I would hope I would pick up the language of land. But I’ve been to foreign countries and with the exception of learning “Thank you” in the national tongue, I’ve pretty much forged my way through my visits using . . . English. If we Americans can’t adapt to the language of other countries, why do we continually expect people from other countries to adapt to our language?

I only talked with a young German lady about how arrogant it was for Americans to expect to get through the world with just one language. Shouldn't we at least know a little of some other languages? (Despite a very limited understanding of French, I’m about as monolingual as they come.) She answered: “No, you’re just really lucky.” She meant, if you could know just one language in this day and age, English is definitely your best bet.

I may be lucky to have a language spoke in all parts of the world as my native tongue. Still, it seems we’re poised to lose something if we buy into the concept of a monolingual society. As more and more countries use English to adapt to our increasingly globalized economy, we are losing ways to express ourselves and come into knowledge that come from each unique world language.

So why do we keep saying: “You can’t say that?”

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