Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chestertonian Answer?

I recently read in the paper that 8 percent of medical patients can't speak English and need interpreters, or they won't/don't get good medical care.

This percentage is more than just the newly-arrived-who-haven't-had-English-lessons-yet.

And I am old enough to have grandparents who came into this country, determined to learn the language, and who did not even allow their own children (my parents) to learn their native tongue (French) so that their kids would grow up with English.

What ever happened to that mentality? The one that says, "When in America, become American" (and therefore speak English)?.

Because English is our country's language, I feel that immigrants should learn English. It helps assimilate into the culture, and it certainly would help in medical emergency situations. I don't think the medical community should have to worry about lack of interpretation when it is a cultural issue that our country is not dealing with. Medical people need to have medical skills, that's what we pay them for.

Friends recently moved to Luxembourg, where the natives speak Luxembourgish, German, and French. Our friends did not decide that they would just find English speaking friends and dismiss the native languages. The parents learned French and are now taking Luxembourgish language lessons, the children are learning Luxembourgish in school and taking French lessons with tutors. They have English-speaking friends, why are they working so hard to learn these languages (even such an obscure one as Luxembourgish)? Because they are Christians who would like to evangelize others, and in order to do their work effectively, they need to speak the native language. They aren't assuming that everyone will accomodate them in their English speaking.

I think we are doing people a grave disservice to allow a lack of English speaking to remain a part of immigrant's lives. We condemn them to a life of working with others who can speak their language at McDonald's or becoming a maid in a hotel, or a lawn service person for those who can afford that.

Of course it is a benefit to be able to speak two languages. So I am not saying that what my grandparents did was a good thing. They could have taught my dad both French and English, but they didn't want to, that was their way then, and that's OK.

But we can't say that knowing only one language, if it is not English (when you live in America), is a good thing. It isn't.


  1. Another example of stovepiping in our culture. In fact, a culture characterized by unbridled individualism can hardly be called a culture at all--do you think? The melting pot mentality is no more. :(

  2. I read that article and had the same response. Is it a problem that some people seeking medical treatment can't communicate with hospital staff? Of course it is. But why is it the hospital's problem?, or, more to the point (which I think was the thrust of the article), why is it a problem that needs a governmental solution? It's not. It is the non-English speaker's problem.

    I'm not saying that these people have to learn English. What I am saying is that actions have consequences. If you refuse to learn English in America, there are consequences -- one of them is getting hurt and not having an interpreter available.

  3. One thing to keep in mind is that it's the "nice" people in the school system that often hold immigrants back from learning English. In California there was a big controversy about this awhile back and the immigrant parents overwhelming wanted their children to learn English, while the school system tended to prefer to offer Spanish language classes. This sounded nice, but had the tendency to keep the students from becoming proficient in English. It seems to me that having bilingual teachers would be very helpful, but offering Spanish language classes across the board had unintended negative consequences.


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