Language barriers

February 19, 2007|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- Profiles in political courage are rare, indeed, but there's an early contender for the awards Caroline Kennedy hands out every May: Bill Purcell, mayor of Nashville, Tenn. This month, defying the xenophobes, know-nothings and nativists, Mr. Purcell vetoed a local ordinance that would have enshrined "English-only" as official city policy and dictated that virtually all government communications be in English.

"This ordinance does not reflect who we are in Nashville," the mayor said at a press conference.

Wow. Rather than taking the easy path to cheap acclaim, Mr. Purcell took the high but rocky road of leadership. Will his gesture be widely emulated? Probably not. Politics is too much about popularity, and Mr. Purcell's stand against the nativism that has taken hold among so many Americans certainly won't be popular.

As the backlash against illegal immigration has grown, immigrants' use of their native tongues - especially Spanish - has engendered an over-the-top hostility. American voters are not only fed up with the costs of educating schoolchildren who speak little English, they are also outraged over automated customer service menus that offer the option of instructions in Spanish.

Apparently, a different language or accent is one of those identifiers that stir anxiety, fear and foreboding about the strange "other." In a 2005 interview, Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen mused about humankind's inability to relate easily to those with superficial but obvious differences: "I've wondered for a long time whether the ability to empathize with someone who has a skin color or culture or language different from our own takes not just an effort but a deliberate suppression of mechanisms that lead us to have an immediate reaction of repulsion or lack of interest."

Those mechanisms no doubt worked quite well 100,000 years ago, when primitive man needed the ability to immediately identify likely enemies. But that mechanism is a hindrance now, with jets and the Internet shrinking the planet, with immigration producing diverse nations and with a global marketplace demanding tolerance.

Indeed, those educational leaders who are most visionary insist that American children ought to be fluent in at least one language other than English. They will be competing with multilingual graduates from, among other places, India, China and Malaysia.

Political leaders are more likely to take the shortsighted, narrow-minded view dismissive of foreign language instruction because of its cost. But the answer is to ramp up foreign language instruction, not kill it. Experts agree that children learn second and third languages most easily before the age of 12.

That, by the way, is exactly what the children of immigrants are doing: learning English. Despite all the caterwauling to the contrary, they're not out there refusing to speak the official vernacular of their adopted land.

According to a study published last year in Population and Development Review, Latinos are assimilating just as other immigrants did. By the second generation, the study said, English is the language most often used at home. By the third generation, only 17 percent of Mexicans still speak Spanish well; by the fourth generation, only 5 percent do.

Of course, immigrant kids want to speak English. They want to watch Heroes and imitate the unfortunate antics they see in the Jackass movies, just like other American kids.

Some demographers believe that widespread access to TV and the Internet is helping current immigrants learn English faster than immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The immigrants of yesteryear - Italians, Germans, Poles - often lived in self-contained neighborhoods where Granddad and Grandma never learned English. And they, too, were resented by native-born Americans who thought they'd ruin the country.

They didn't. Neither will the current crop of immigrants. We need more courageous politicians such as Mr. Purcell to say so.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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