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Hal Tatakallam al-Lugha al-Arabiya?

Hal Tatakallam al-Lugha al-Arabiya?
(Do You Speak Arabic?)

Habla Español? Parlez-vous Francais? Hal tatakallam al-lugha al-Arabiya? Most Americans have to answer “no.” Never mind the more esoteric questions.We don’t speak Spanish or French or Arabic, and we aren’t trying to master those languages. We are speaking English, broken, Ebonic, fractured. We are clinging to our national origin. We are hissing and fussing at the faintest lilt of an accent. No habla Español!
Still, there is good news. According to McClatchy reporter David Westphal, the percentage of Americans speaking English only fell to 82 percent — which means that nearly one in five of us speak another language. Most speak both English and Spanish, but speakers of Asian languages grew by more than 50 percent, to nearly 7 million, in the 1990s. In all, 45 million people spoke a language other than English.
But most speak languages other than English by chance, not by design. The K-12 curriculum in the United States does not make foreign language proficiency a requirement. While colleges and universities used to require foreign languages, today language requirements are optional and deemed unnecessary. In contrast, everyone else in the world requires those described as educated to speak some English. Some countries require English classes through secondary school graduation. In others, it is a K-12 requirement. Western European countries, requiring English, see themselves as cultivating multicultural world citizens. We in the United States are prepared to stand on our hegemony, demanding that others bend themselves to our will.
In the wake of Sept. 11, we are learning that the world has not taken to our dominance. Many resent the notion that they must bend to us, while we won’t bend to them. Folks want to be met halfway, and the United States isn’t into that kind of meeting. Our attitude toward language speaks to that. We don’t think we have to learn other languages. We barely speak our own. We get crazy about bilingualism, developing defensive “English Only” movements, myopic about the fact that everybody else, everywhere around the globe speaks English and then something else if they want to do business with us. We aren’t even consistent. While our popular culture trumpets an “English Only” exclusion, our public policy encourages dual language programs. Just a year ago, Education Secretary Richard Riley announced a $48 million increase for bilingual education. He was joined by then-Commerce secretary Norman Mineta, who grew up speaking Japanese in a bilingual household, and by Army Secretary Luis Caldera who prefaced his remarks with an eloquent statement in Spanish. In many cases, our government realizes the importance of bilingualism. Our citizens are quite another matter.
In the wake of Sept. 11, we are learning that foreign language proficiency is more than adherence to a multicultural message. It may be a matter of intelligence and survival for a nation that has spent two decades with its head in the sand. We say we want globalism, and we trade as if the world is our oyster. But we speak as if we have our heads up our collective rear ends, ignorant of the fact that we are not facile with other cultures or languages. Not enough of us speak or can translate Arabic. Not enough of us can be active in intelligence work. Too many of us would employ rogue intelligence workers because we don’t know enough to do translation as usual.
A Ghanaian colleague recently reminded me that language is culture. When people cease to speak a language, they cease to lift a culture up, to celebrate its life and its accomplishments. People speak fewer languages than they did a decade ago. For example, the Australian continent supported 200 tongues in 1788, but only 20 tongues now. What have we lost with those lost dialects? More than a billion people speak Mandarin Chinese, while half as many speak English. By asserting that English is the world’s language, what do we lose? Language is culture, and we see the American cultural hegemony manifested every time we go to a developing country and see the golden arches of the universal McDonald’s burger.
If we ever get past the golden arches, we’ll realize that globalization has to be something more than an economic phenomenon. We have to be willing to habla Español, parlons Francais, and get into the world’s linguistic mix. More than that, we have to project a multiculturalism that makes it clear that we can translate it all — Arabic, Ghanaian Twi, Haitian patois and other languages. When we say our nation lost every nationality in the World Trade Center, might we also say we valued them so much that we know their language, their culture and their energy? Can we claim the mantle of multiculturalism without dealing with its mechanics? Habla Español? Habla Inglés?
It is not clear that we would have been able to prevent the events of Sept. 11 with more foreign language proficiency. It is clear, though, that we’d be ahead of the intelligence game if we knew how to communicate in other languages and other cultures. Instead of being aware of others, we have insisted that the world revolves around us. Our insistence has produced a reluctant acquiescence. It has insulated us and isolates us, in a way that is alien to any other nation.

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