Like most people, I do not come from a village where everyone is thoughtful, wise, and tolerant. That doesn’t mean everyone is especially bad, but humans have their limitations. It seems to be our true nature that we are at least wary of what is different from us. And that’s the good version. At worst, that natural feeling runs to the forest, bares its fangs, and we get intolerance, fear, and hatred.
Fortunately, the worst is no more common than the best, yet the big gray middle carries a plenitude of anxiety about The Other. One way the “otherness” of other people is manifest is in the language they speak. This is so obviously true that even very slight dialect differences within the same native language can set people apart. And what if they speak a totally different language? That’s nothing but noise! That’s spooky.
I’m a language lover, however. When I lived in New York Ciy, I liked to go to a section of Brooklyn called Brighton Beach, as it was filled with Russians, which was cool for me as a person who had learned the language. I don’t know that I really tried to speak the language much there, but I just liked that it was all around, with many of the signs in Russian: книги (books), ресторан (restaurant) овощи (vegetables). Of course if you crossed over to Manhattan and went to Chinatown, you got exactly the same thing, but in Chinese.
In the last twenty years or so, the city of Atlanta has become remarkably diverse in ethnic and cultural terms. That’s not to say all that interesting ethnicity holds much power, but it’s here. I live near a road in the city that is famous for the multitude of immigrants, and you can drive along seeing signs in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese for mile after mile, with a tiny bit of Ethiopian thrown in.
As you know, there are people here in America who feel threatened by cultural changes, and their lurch into fear often gets expressed as a reaction to language. In some places, the change has been dramatic. In my hometown of Gainesville, an hour from here, there has been a massive Hispanic influx, and a road I remember as small-town southern white is now lined with signs in Spanish. I mentioned this fact to a family member, who had an instantaneous negative reaction, along the lines of “They need to learn English if they’re going to come here!”
And of course, over time they do learn English (not that actual facts are part of this anxiety). A little over a hundred years ago there were towns in this country where German newspapers were published, because so many people there spoke mostly German. Now the great-grandchildren of those people probably don’t know ten words of German. New immigrants obviously speak the language they know the best, and I have observed the process—with more than one language—where immigrants speak to their children in the native language, and the children understand but reply in English.
Still…fear of The Other, you know. Plenty of people in this country, based on nothing much more than their own anxiety, declare as a fact that “The Hispanics don’t want to learn English.” Last week when I was in Miami, I took a bus tour that went through the famous Cuban section of Miami, called Little Havannah. Surely if you can live in this country speaking nothing but Spanish, it would be there. As we rode through on the bus, down the main street called Calle Ocho (which means Eighth Street, but in Spanish!), I was noticing how many signs I saw in English. Yes, I saw Spanish, but English signs were everywhere I looked. Clearly, people in Little Havannah are not speaking only Spanish.
I want to be sympathetic to people who feel anxious and afraid of change. I know their uneasiness is natural, but when it comes to language, I love languages so much that I think “ah, the more the better”. I would love to step outside my door and see signs in Polish, hear people speaking French, and walk down to stores with names in Ethiopian. That sounds beautiful to me.