19 January 2012

Post 470: Dan Walker (guest blogger)

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. ISBN: 9781594487569 (advanced reader copy).

The whole illegal immigrant debate is still raging in this country, and if there's one thing that really gets under my nerves, it's a single phrase that keeps being repeated by those who are seemingly anti-immigrant: "They should learn English!"

There is, frankly, a war on foreign language going on right now. I keep reading anecdotes of Americans being offended by the fact that others are speaking languages that are not English around them. This is completely ludicrous. Worse are the related movements trying to keep government documents and voting ballots from being printed in anything but English. Should immigrants learn English? I would say yes; I certainly wouldn't want to live in a country where I couldn't understand the predominant tongue. But the one thing that these people do not understand is that it takes a lot of time to learn a language.

This is one thing I really liked about Girl in Translation, is that we get to see the parallel language development of Kim and her mother. They emigrate from Hong Kong speaking very little English; by the middle of high school, Kim is talking like a native speaker and still has to translate for her mother. Her mother tries learning English around that time, so she can take the naturalization test, but it's a real struggle. I don't know if she actually passes the test, but at the end of the book, she's still not speaking it very well.

The struggles of immigrants to learn English if they've had little or no training in it in their home country are really poorly understood here. Even if they've learned English already, a second-language setting does not provide the cultural context and constant immersion in the second language necessary for someone to really be able to function in a society that speaks that language. Plus, there's cultural shock, differences in body language and inflection that are not always taught, and things like having learned British English and then trying to survive in America. So shouldn't we throw these people a bone, so they can function in their native tongue while they're still learning, especially considering that it's much harder for adults to learn languages than it is for children? Isn't it more important to make sure that people have their civil rights properly explained to them than to push an agenda of "our language or the highway"?

I think for those with the latter sentiment, their viewpoint comes from a lack of understanding and sympathy. This comes directly from the piss-poor status foreign languages hold in the US. For most Americans, foreign language class is something to be tolerated for two years during high school, and maybe another two years in college to satisfy liberal education requirements. They have no need to get anything but a passing grade because even if they go to another country, "Everyone speaks English anyway." This isn't necessarily untrue, but the fact is, few appreciate the cultural understanding that can stem from a serious study of a language, and that lack of seriousness leads to a lack of understanding about how hard learning a language can be (not to mention, they learned theirs while their minds were still plastic enough to absorb it all).

With our current focus on math and science education, I'm sure foreign language is going to continue to fall by the wayside, and I don't know what could really be done to change cultural views on language. What I will do with these last few sentences is give a little advice to any American who wants to make a language-learning decision that will actually be useful to them. Here are a few good languages to try and learn if you have to learn any:

  • American Sign Language. No, it's not just making hand gestures to substitute for English words. ASL has its own grammar, which can be bizarre and complex to someone who's only familiar with English. Even if you never leave the United States, ASL is the one language that will most benefit you at home. You will always encounter people who can't hear very well or at all, and there is always a need for interpreters.
  • Spanish. Kind of a no-brainer, and another "I don't want to leave the country" language. The importance of Spanish is of course increased the further West one travels.
  • French. Less important, but hey, maybe you'll go to Canada one day. There are even places like Louisiana and Maine where people still speak French. French can also teach you a lot about English, because we've got a TON of French loanwords.
  • Mandarin Chinese. Now we're in the category of "useful for business." A billion+ people speak Chinese, and Mandarin is the prevalent dialect. If you're going into something like international affairs or business, this is an A-1 doubleplus good choice for a language. It's hard to read, sure, and sometimes hard to understand, but the grammar is easy at least. I don't know much about Cantonese, but it's another good choice (and completely different from Mandarin, despite being called a 'dialect').
  • Latin. Some consider it a cop-out, since it's a dead language and all, but it's amazing how much you can learn about English from another language, just like with French. Latin formed about half the building blocks of English, and it's still very useful in the sciences.
  • Arabic. Duh. No language right now can get you employed faster. I'm pretty sure the government even has programs where they'll pay for you to learn Arabic so you can be a translator.
So there's a sampling. Just remember, learning another language is far easier when you're well acquainted with your own, so pay attention in grammar class!

Dan Walker (pseudonym) is a writer from Northeast Ohio. He received a BA in Creative Writing from Wright State University in 2004 and a Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language from Kent State University in 2009. He is the current editor of Lib's LIB. 

*This post was originally written December 9, 2010 to allow the regular author a break and/or a chance to catch up on her own reading. Because A Clash of Kings is a long ass book, okay, guys?
**Danny received the ARC from me, I received it from my public library and they g0t it directly from publishers.

You can see Amy's thoughts on A Girl in Translation here.

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