Wednesday, August 10, 2005

One language only, please 

In a sharp break from American tradition, the Denver Public Library is promoting a plan that would make seven of its branches "Spanish focused," banishing English language books to the backroom. The "Languages and Learning" plan would dramatically increase Spanish language offerings and staff, designating some locations as Spanish dominant. The proposal is currently under review by the Library Commission and an advisory board.
Not for me to tell the beautiful Colorado how to run their things, but bilingualism annoys the hell out of me. And it's not because I don't like Spanish - or Polish for that matter - or because I like English better, but because in countries built by generations of migrants coming from everywhere around the world, the common language is one of the most important glues that bind us all together.

I came to Australia seventeen years ago, knowing maybe 50 English words. I did not expect any "Polish focused" institutions to keep me in a linguistic ghetto; I wanted to learn the language of the land so I could make the most of the opportunities that Australia could offer me. It's the love of books that got me where I am. I'm looking now at an old notebook, where I wrote down all the words that were new to me together with their translation and phonetic pronunciation. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the unexplained, and one of the first books in Australia that served as my English teacher was a children's book about monsters and legendary creatures. So I look at these words, which were once so new and so strange; "devour", "lair", "hump", "abominable", "ferocious"...

I don't quite agree with Mauro E. Mujica, chairman of the board of U.S. English, Inc., who said that "Denver's action is a dubious first in American history: a major U.S. city is creating a public institution that intentionally excludes native-born Americans," not only because you don't have to be a native-born American to feel excluded from a "non-English-first" facility, but because, even worse than excluding non-Spanish speakers, the brave new Denver libraries would perpetuate the exclusion of Spanish speakers from the mainstream of the American society by downplaying the need for linguistic integration.


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