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Multilingualism Versus “English Only”

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July 2005
Multilingualism Versus “English Only”

Most of us who migrated to the U.S. did so for an improved standard of living. And to most, America has not disappointed. Judging from various indicators such as the Census data, Indian-Americans are a thriving lot.

Yet, sooner or latter an immigrant population is bound to grapple with issues of displacement, identity and roots. On this note, a subtle but gnawing fear may well be the gradual loss of our native customs, tradition and heritage, and thereby, the loss of our very identity as a people of Indian origin.

Some may argue that in a globalized and connected world as the one we live in, such fears are baseless. And yet, going by one criterion, that of language ? which, according to many anthropologists, is a key indicator as well as sustainer of culture and tradition ? it is not hard to see the increasing distance between Indian-Americans youngsters and their roots.

As cited in the cover story in this issue, the trend in the U.S. is such that English is fast dwarfing the native languages of young immigrant populations. (A notable exception is that of the Spanish, which, thanks to the massive number of Spanish speaking immigrants in the U.S., continues to gain momentum). Notwithstanding that, other immigrant languages are falling prey to the lure of English.

This doesn't come as a surprise. In an increasingly homogenous America, young immigrants seem to be more interested in striving for assimilation rather than preservation (of their roots). It is considered "cool" to be able to overstep one's ethnicity and morph into the prevailing popular culture ? where ethnicity is often reserved for comic relief in sitcoms and standup routines.

Admittedly though, there is a dilemma surrounding the issue of promoting multiple native languages; a dilemma that of all people, we Indians can certainly empathize with. After all, back home, we have seen the dysfunction surrounding the issue of multiple languages ? such as when the Prime Minister's national address has to be translated for many of his own constituents!

Having many vernacular languages at the cost of one binding national language is the other side of the coin of multilingualism. It is perhaps the reason why many in mainstream America are not too warm to the idea of encouraging multiple languages. Unfortunately, the advent of Spanish as an alternative in government and commerce may have set a poor precedent for the case of multilingualism. It is this, more than anything that has resulted in much of the "English only" activism. These activists worry about the consequences ? and rightly so ? of a melting pot population that is not functional in English.

Being cognizant of this, we have a task to encourage two seemingly contradictory goals surrounding language promotion in the U.S. On the one hand we need to continue to take pride in our native languages and encourage and facilitate our younger generations to learn it. While on the other, we need to acknowledge the importance of English as the one binding language that the nation can function in. We not only need to strive to be functional in English, but also see to it that, except for highly crucial functions, our ethnic languages are not pushed as alternatives in commerce or government.

The goal then would be multilingualism in popular culture? but "English only" in the functionality of the nation.

- Parthiv N. Parekh


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