Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
Q: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
Q: What do you call a person who speaks four or more languages?
A: A polyglot.
Q: What do you call a person who speaks only one language?
A: An American
The joke cited above, told throughout the world in countless languages – with the notable exception of in English in the United States, illustrates a free ranging conversation I recently had with my niece Deborah. Among other things, we touched on the subject of people speaking other languages in public. She mentioned angry reactions that she got from people because of her effort to learn enough Spanish to communicate with customers at the convenience store where she worked. As she lives in Idaho, those customers were among the many migrant workers who flock there to work in the potato harvest. Most, presumably, are Mexican. Deborah felt that she was doing a good thing by attempting to help others out and delighted in telling about the positive reinforcement that she received from those Spanish-speaking customers, who helped her learn vocabulary and corrected her pronunciation. Those customers were extremely appreciative that someone – anyone – cared enough to try to help out. Some of her other customers and coworkers where less thrilled. They criticized her with that overly-trite and repugnantly dismissive attitude that “They’re here. They should learn English.”
No one – including those migrants – disputes that learning their new country’s language is not only desirable, but also necessary. Anyone who has studied the question likewise knows that many of those being raked over the coals for not doing so are adults whose children go to school. They know that their children will learn the language and, more often than not, act as interpreters for them. Language acquisition as an adult is more difficult than it is for a child, especially if those adult have lower levels of education and / or are working long hours at low pay in order to support their families. This, however, is not the point I wish to address.
Deborah’s comments confirmed my own personal observations back home in Oklahoma, both as a bilingual and as a casual observer. I am, as most readers already know, a native born and bred Oklahoman, and spent over 40 years of my life in that state. My wife, however, is not. She is Brazilian but lived in Oklahoma from 2005-2011. Because her English is rather limited, we always spoke Portuguese both at home and in public. Consequently, I was able to observe other people’s reactions to what they perceived to be non-English speakers – and what I observed was often not very pretty. We were subjected to hostile stares and occasional snide remarks. (Those making remarks never realized that I am a native speaker of English. They simply assumed that I didn’t speak English because I was speaking another language.) Rudeness was the norm. Solidarity was rarely expressed. We were shown that we were not wanted... “You’re in America. Speak English!” was what we saw in their eyes and felt in their attitudes. “Go home!” was the unspoken message. Most, upon learning that I was already “home”, assumed that I was the child of immigrants. (I’m not. I’m sixth generation Okie.) They simply could not conceive of why anyone would ever bother to learn another language. After all, you only need to know English because this is ‘Murica, right?
In contrast, Brazil is totally different. I have always spoken only English to my children. It is my language and it is how I choose to communicate with them. This is as true for Georgia, now 23, born in Brazil and raised in the US as it is for Jack and Melissa, ages seven and five respectively, born in Oklahoma and growing up in Brazil. We have never been subjected to scornful looks, dismissive attitudes or anything else negative because we speak English in public. Period. (Okay, there is one exception to that which I will mention later, but those involved were not Brazilians, even though it happened here.) We are greeted with curiosity – supportive curiosity. Brazilians, unlike the folks back in the States, realize that bilingualism is not only a good thing, it is an amazing gift when you are able to give it to your children. People ask us where we are from. They ask if we are visiting or if we live here and are ALWAYS pleased when they find out we not only live here in Brazil, but are locals, living in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais. They comment on how cute it is to see our small children speaking English and then be able to turn around and speak Portuguese. Jack and Melissa are fluent for their ages in both languages and separate them with ease. English is for Daddy and Portuguese is for Mamãe. They also speak without “foreign accents” in both languages. My small fries own both languages, which is how it should be.
Okay, so what was that exception? Georgia’s grandparents were immigrants from Portugal who arrived in Brazil in the late 1940s and 1950s. They lived in a neighborhood in São Paulo with many other Portuguese immigrants, including close relatives – brothers, cousins, nephews and nieces, also all Portuguese. Being more insular than Brazilians, they were none too happy that a foreign (i.e., non-Portuguese) interloper had somehow managed to penetrate the sanctity of their family and, consequently, would complain that they couldn’t understand what I was saying when I spoke to Georgia. They wanted me to speak only Portuguese with her in their presence. My response was, well, not very acceptable, at least to them. I would simply inform them that I would speak to my child in my own language.
That somewhat less than civil answer is also what I expect anyone else to give, no matter who they are and no matter where they are. A person’s language is part of that person’s identity. To be expected to not speak your language is to be expected to deny a very important part of who you are. My ex-wife’s family never understood that, just as many people back in the good old USA also do not understand that. Their attitude was very similar to the attitudes of the xenophobes back home who feel insecure when faced with another language, or with anything else with which they are unfamiliar. In short, they are uncomfortable with the “other”. It is not an attitude that I frequently encounter in Brazil.
As a middle- and high Spanish teacher in Oklahoma, I often had students who complained about people speaking Spanish in the grocery store. “They’re talking about us, making fun of us!” was a refrain that I heard more than once – far more than once. “No,” I would tell those students. “I’ve listened to them. They’re complaining about the prices, wondering if the bread is fresh, talking about what happened at work. In short, they’re talking about the same boring things you and I talk about at the grocery store.” And I would then shake my head because, no matter how much or how often I reassured them, those students weren’t willing to accept what I said. After all, their attitudes had come from a lifetime of reinforcement in their homes from their parents, grandparents, siblings and from society in general. “The other” is, by definition, suspect.
To finalize, one of the greatest disservices that we, as a nation, commit to both ourselves and to everyone else is our unhealthy attitude in regard to the rest of the world, as exemplified by our refusal as a society to learn other languages. That refusal reflects the arrogance for which we are known throughout the world, be it as obnoxious tourists or as Marines attempting to inject the world with a little democracy. By that refusal, we are telling the world that we are better than everyone else and, therefore, the rest of the world needs to accommodate us wherever we are and whatever we are doing. We, obviously, have no need to accommodate them. That is what “American exceptionalism” means to the rest of the world.
POSTSCRIPT: Check out this link. It beautifully illustrates the above. You can’t make this stuff up.