Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hablo American

I started learning Spanish in 7th Grade.  My parents and older brother were second language French speakers ... so by choosing Spanish I was already setting myself apart as the rebel of the family.  I progressed reasonably well until my sophomore year in high school when the teacher conducted the class totally in Spanish.  I quickly adapted what I thought words should sound like in Spanish – becoming proficient in Spanglish, earning me low marks while brandishing cultural insensitivity.  My Spanglish was perfected during my time in Los Angeles.  I used to have an appropriate amount of embarrassment that I hadn’t mastered a foreign tongue, instead cobbling together words and phrases that ultimately are more gibberish than anything else.  Today I’m in good company.  According to the AssociatedPress: “the Spanish-language version of Healthcare.gov, is ‘so clunky and full of grammatical mistakes that critics say they must have been computer-generated.’ … ‘It’s written in Spanglish.’  Developing and publishing a site in Spanish (where even the URL is an inaccurate translation from it’s English counterpart) isn’t just bad management.  It’s hubris. 


The English only movement dates back in the US to 1803 as a result of the purchase of the Louisiana Purchase.  Today 31 states have English as their official languages – including California.  I was surprised by this since at my last visit to the CA DMV the test and the materials were in 19 different languages.  English is not the official language of Massachusetts where I live now – but that probably has more to do with the Boston accent than anything else.


U.S.ENGLISH, Inc. is “the nation's oldest, largest citizens' action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States with 1.8 million members nationwide.”  They believes that “the passage of English as the official language will help to expand opportunities for immigrants to learn and speak English, the single greatest empowering tool that immigrants must have to succeed.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has stated that "English Only" laws are inconsistent “with both the First Amendment right to communicate with or petition the government, as well as free speech, and the right to equality because they bar government employees from providing non-English language assistance and services.”

According to Wikipedia English is spoken by approx. 375 million people in a wide range of geographies.  It’s close to the 387 million who speak Spanish, but far behind the 935 million who speak Mandarin.


Forbes reported:  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared in 2010, “Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages.”  Unfortunately, Duncan pointed out, only 18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53% of Europeans (and increasing numbers in other parts of the world) can converse in a second language.


The Healthcare.gov site being written in Spanglish is unfortunate, stupid and a political and policy blunder. For a country whose citizens only speak English will impact how the U.S. participates in a global economy. Diplomacy, foreign policy issues let alone military and security items all require multi-lingual experts. We can’t rely on computers to do that work.  And we can't just speak American. 

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