Sunday, February 20, 2005

Parlay-voo American?

The LA Times reports that a judge in Lebanon, Tennessee has ordered a mother from Oaxaca, Mexico to learn English in six months or lose her children:

"The court specially informs the mother that if she does not make the effort to learn English, she is running the risk of losing any connection - legally, morally and physically with her daughter forever," reads a court order from the hearing, according to Jerry Gonzalez, the Nashville attorney who represents the woman.

Tatum's orders have become the subject of debate in this Tennessee community, which has seen an influx of non-English speakers over the last decade. Civil rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have charged that his orders are discriminatory and unconstitutional. But many of Tatum's neighbors cheered the principle behind his act, saying new immigrants should be encouraged to assimilate more fully into American life.


"The general sentiment is, if people are going to be in this country, we all have a moral obligation to learn to speak the language," said Bob Bright, 61, who runs an insurance agency in Lebanon.

"I know if I was in Mexico I would make an effort to learn Hispanic."

Doesn't that just say it all?

What a huge crock. My mother-in-law spoke absolutely no English when she arrived here from Greece in the late sixties, and yet nevertheless she managed to get the appropriate medical care for herself and the three children she gave birth to and reared before reaching anything even close to a 4th-grade level of English. She's fluent in the language now, but to this day my father-in-law still struggles when speaking English, and yet he has been able to be a law-abiding, tax-paying, functioning member of American society for the past thirty years who was more than able to provide for his family.

This is xenophobia, pure and simple. Three hundred years ago we never thought the Germans would ever be assimilated into our society, as they stubbornly refused to give up speaking their own language in favor of English, settled in enclaves that fostered ethnic separatism, and practiced weird offshoots of Christianity that were deemed as heretical and uncompromising as Catholicism was later, and Islam today.

Non-English speaking people have settled in our country for centuries. They will inevitably have children who are functionally bilingual, and in turn they will raise a third generation for whom English will be the primary language. This is how assimilation has always worked in America - in fact, the "three generation" rule is near-universal, even in the case of the most stubborn cultures and traditionally conservative languages - so I don't see why we have to artificially force the process to score points with the nativists and xenophobes, especially now that we have the technological wherewithal to provide near-instantaneous translation to and from English.

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