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Derek Jennings 

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When I'm not writing, my corporate alter ego leads a team of systems analysts responsible for supporting large computer installations in RTP, Guadalajara, Mexico, and (soon to be) Shenzhen, China. My team is appropriately multinational--the crew of six includes two analysts from India, two from Mexico, and two who are ethnically Chinese (only one was actually born in China, the other was born in the United States). Crazy hours notwithstanding, the job is a tremendous learning opportunity, providing both technical challenges and stimulating cultural exchange. I've always been fascinated with finding out how people outside the United States view things. When working with such a diverse group, any subject--food, holidays, weather--is a potential point of departure for a lesson in life.

I speak a teeny bit of Spanish (Yo hablo un poquito de español). Inexplicably, I remember enough from my freshman year in high school to hold occasional kindergarten-level conversations with coworkers here, and my I/T counterparts in Mexico via our virtual conferencing system. One of the consultants from India, feeling a bit left out, asked the guys from Mexico if they could teach her some Spanish, offering, in return, to teach them some Hindi. Now it was my turn to feel left out. Since they all already had excellent English skills, there wasn't much I could teach them in that department, so I volunteered to provide some instruction in Ebonics instead.

The chagrin I felt due to my relative monolingualism, while genuine, would probably not be shared by many Americans. It's not necessarily a conscious phenomenon, but we have an ingrained, collective conceit regarding language. America's status atop the global economic and military food chains, not to mention its vast cultural influence, allow us the "luxury" of having almost everybody else in the world deal with us on our terms. You want to transact business? Speak some English. You want to get on the Internet (for the most part), speak some English. And on the relatively rare occurrences when we do have to get out of our linguistic comfort zones, as when having to push an extra button on the ATM to specify Inglés, or debugging computer code where the variables and comments are in German (I run into that a lot), it's like, "How dare they use something other than English!" An' that's good ol' 'merican English, too, for all you international types. Don't come over here talkin' bout you "realise" or have a British sense of "humour." Uh-uh.

I suppose some degree of linguistic chauvinism is natural; we're going to be biased toward our native language and culture. But we really do ourselves a disservice when we accept the notion that we're the only folks on the planet who only have to know one language. The vestiges of colonialism play a part in the number of the world's citizens who speak English, Spanish and French. (Brazil, with around 60 million, has the largest number of black people living outside of the African continent, and the brothers and sistas there speak Portuguese!) Some other countries may pursue multilingualism as part of a general desire for educational excellence, while still others have added English to their curricula and cultures in recognition of economic reality and the need to be steeped in the language of finance and trade, which, barring a comeback by Esperanto, means globalization on American terms.

Regardless of whether a subtly superior attitude is reinforced by the amount of influence the United States has on world affairs, there's a line that we often cross which plays directly into the "Ugly American" perception that many foreigners have of us.

A few years back, with my house power out due to Hurricane Fran, I was in a laundromat in Raleigh's MiniCity, watching a roomful of people play into that stereotype. An African man (Senegalese), was washing his clothes, biding his time and just trying to make chitchat with people. His heavy accent and clipped manner of speech made it immediately clear that he hadn't grown up in Durham or Dunn. I sat, observant, checking people out as they snickered at his speech and looked at him like he was ignorant or something because his English wasn't too good.

I struck up a conversation with him, and made a point to ask what other languages he spoke. He responded, counting along on his fingers, that he spoke French, Italian, Wolof and two other regional dialects. He went on, in his lilting accent, to inform me that he was in the United States studying to be a doctor, but the medical school he was attending in Chicago told him that he had to improve his speaking skills first. Consequently, he was working odd jobs in the Triangle while studying English at night at Wake Tech. Those who'd been sniggling, but had overheard the conversation, suddenly didn't find the man's speech as humorous as before. When you point at someone, there are always four fingers pointing back at you. They felt ignorant.

I often hear folks complaining about seeing signs with Spanish translations, or muttering in exasperation when the clerk on the fast-food counter is not a native speaker, requiring them ("Oh, the horror") to speak very clearly in order to order. Upon hearing someone griping about the fact that there are restaurants in Miami where everything is in Spanish, I replied, "Oh yeah? Cool. I went to a McDonald's in San Francisco where the menus are in Chinese. They served rice, and I had to get a special menu (like blind people always do) to place my order. It's like traveling with no passport--you should be glad for the experience." That really pisses English-only types off.

The consequences of these language disconnects can often be more serious than getting the wrong kinda sauce with your chicken nuggets. My neighbors are native Spanish speakers, hailing from Puerto Rico (via Nueva York) and Venezuela. They received a frantic call, in Spanish, one night, from the wife of a Mexican man who'd installed their fence. The woman was calling from Rex Hospital, and was frantic because her husband was unconscious, and the hospital had no one on hand who could understand her or translate his symptoms to the doctor. My neighbors rushed out, driving 40 minutes to the hospital. As it turned out, the man had suffered an aneurysm. In a situation where seconds count, almost an hour had elapsed before the health-care workers were able to fully treat him. The man suffered brain damage as a result. He can no longer build fences; he can no longer make a living.

Everybody who no speakee Engleesh could always just go home, the close-the-border people are undoubtedly thinking by now (that is, if they even bothered to read this far). Of course, if a potential immigrant has a helluva fastball or can code in C++, we'll probably be willing to make a few exceptions--but that's a whole 'nother column. Since jobs and prosperity are what fuels most immigration (and the Southward migration of Yankees like myself), we can expect folks to keep on coming. North Carolina's Hispanic population increased 110 percent between 1990 and 1998, 160 percent in Wake County. The percentage of Asians living in the state went up by 87 percent during the same span. A recent article in The Chapel Hill News cited that Chapel Hill's town manager has enrolled in a twice-weekly Spanish class in order to provide better service to his Latino constituents. State and local agencies are clamoring to provide translators and other multilingual support. Many churches now sport signs emblazoned in Spanish or Korean, informing or enticing potential parishioners.

As the browning of the Triangle continues, the area will have to make even more accommodations, pushing the die-hard monolinguals even further out of their comfort zones. From a strictly economic standpoint, it's probably a good idea for them to try and pick up another language if they plan on sticking around for any length of time. There's probably a good chance that 20 years from now, their boss will speak Spanish or Chinese. Unless the economy cools down. Perhaps a scientist in India will discover an unlimited energy supply (and survive the assassination attempts by the oil companies) and usher in a new era of unparalleled prosperity for that country. They'll be so rich that Americans will be sneaking in across the Kashmiri border. And we'll speak horrible Telegu, Tamil and Hindi. Will they laugh at us? EndBlock

  • Notes from an embarrassed monolinguist.

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