Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Debunking the Myths

 by Tamara Whitehouse

This week, I was struck by how many folk assumptions about language arise in the English-only debates.  For this entry, I would like to focus on two assumptions that caught my attention the most.

In this video, we hear several questionable assumptions about language from Kaufman.  For instance, she states at one point that due to the current wave of Hispanic immigration, the nation is becoming “an America that doesn’t look anything like the America the forefathers set up.”  This statement is questionable for many reasons, not least of which the fact that merely having a different racial composition than what existed 200 years ago is not automatically a negative- and it’s interesting that she would think it is.  It also begs the question of what exactly she means by ‘looks like;’ does she only mean that literally, as in racial categories?  Alternatively, does she believe she is talking only about the languages spoken (although as we have explored in class, that would be closely tied to race as well)?  If it is the latter, one has to wonder how it would be possible for modern America to not ‘look’ different than it did 200 years ago.

However, the assumption I really want to focus on is one that comes in at the end of the video, during a heated exchange between her and a more pro-bilingual guest.  The guest, representing Hispanic immigrants, states “we want to be a part of this country,” before being interrupted by Kaufman, who shouts “then speak English, it’s not that complicated!”  This is a damaging assumption which is echoed by anti-bilingual propaganda produced by pro-Proposition O campaigners quoted in Woolard’s article.  One of the recurring themes in such propaganda is the theme of “unfairness;” this is described by Woolard as the concept that past immigrants “felt it a duty and a privilege to learn English,” (Woolard, 272).

That statement implies that the concept is in direct contrast to ‘today’s’ immigrants, who must not find it as much of a “duty and a privilege.”  ‘Today’s’ immigrants, it is assumed, are perhaps less motivated, are lazier, dumber, or are apathetic toward learning English.  Furthermore, this moral judgment is made even worse because it is labeled as being “unfair.”  Unfair to whom?  To those poor, hardworking immigrants of the past who ‘actually’ learned English and assimilated, and are now somehow being slapped in the face by these lazy newcomers.   It’s ‘not fair’ that they had to learn English while modern immigrants ‘don’t.’  Of course, this reasoning is completely faulty, but it sounds nice so it gets airtime.  As noted in class on Monday, public English education classes are regularly overbooked, and modern immigrants are actually learning English at the same pace as any other major wave of immigrants in the past. 

Another folk assumption mentioned in Woolard’s article is that someone’s inability to read or write English implies that they cannot understand or produce spoken English (Woolard, 272).  This, too, is faulty.  My own personal experience shows that the correlation between literacy and language ability is minimal; for instance, I have a much higher written proficiency in Spanish than I do spoken.  When I write Spanish, I write like a second grader, but when I speak Spanish, I probably sound like a toddler.  This shows that the two forms of fluency can be separate and should be judged separately.  Another example can be seen in friends I had in high school, who told me that even though they were raised speaking Spanish at home, they didn’t feel confident in their written abilities.  They were fluent in conversation, but remedial in writing and reading.  If a Spanish speaker can be fluent in spoken word but lacking in literacy, there’s no reason why an English speaker can’t have the same issues- and there’s no reason why someone’s inability to read must mean they cannot understand the language at all.

Further evidence of this, that surpasses the anecdotal, can be seen in this video:

The speaker in the video is addressing adults who cannot read.  He is speaking slowly and clearly, but is using fluent English and is assuming that those listening know enough English to understand him.  In other words, those listening to his video can understand spoken English, despite any inability to read English.


This video shows a man speaking about his experiences before he learned how to read.  He mentions in the beginning that his daughter asked him to read a book to her, and he could not.  It is obvious, however, that he understood her spoken question; his inability to read English did not impair his ability to understand English.

These two videos show that illiteracy cannot be taken as irrefutable evidence that the person does not understand English.  Therefore, just because a Hispanic voter might want to use a bilingual ballot, it does not necessarily mean that they are uninformed- or even that they relied on translated information.  They may very well have usable English skills that just haven’t yet transferred to reading.  A Spanish ballot cannot be taken as a sign that the voter has an inability to understand English; it can only show that the voter is more comfortable with written Spanish than with written English. 

This folk assumption, that illiteracy equals complete incomprehension, is damaging because it paints illiterate immigrants as being variously uneducated, uninformed, misinformed, and liable to manipulation.  This makes them undesirable voters, and could cause those of opposing parties to dismiss their votes as somehow less valid due to their ‘uninformed’ or ‘coerced’ nature.  This misperception also provides more backing to the fight to have voting ballots be English-only.

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