When in Rome

18 08 2009

Do you think Germans struggle with what language to speak, or which language to teach, or which language to post on their street signs just because they do not have an ‘official’ language?  The same could be asked about Australia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Somalia, Sweden and of course, the United States.

Here, in the United States, it is an issue though and every few years some group or two raises the masses in an effort to have an official language assigned to our country.  I don’t know that it would change much of anything, the road signs are already in English, the major news outlets as well and at our public schools it is the primary language in which lessons are taught.  The proposal for an official language is primarily exclusionary in design no matter how legislators want to paint it as a financial issue.  If you listen to the supporters, translating documents and speeches and providing translators for official matters is a costly drain on our economy and could save states tens of thousands a year.

I propose, that if we as a nation wish to make English the official language that we first need to learn to speak it, to write it – properly.  It astounds me when I read notes from teachers sent home with my children, people employed to teach my children proper grammar who cannot use it, much less spell it!  To quote Professor Higgins, “Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter, condemned by every syllable she ever uttered.  By law she should be taken out and hung, for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.”

The language of today makes the ebonics of a decade ago seem acceptable.  Written word is done in texting codes with hints of proper grammar thrown in for good measure.  As long as you can verbalize your thoughts, there is a spell checking command for all else.  That is how we see sentences like ‘don’t take it for granite’ somehow slipping by.  I don’t profess to be an English major, I am well aware my skills at prose are minimal at best.  Yet, I can identify the proper use of your and you’re.  I know the difference between does and dose.  When all else fails I remember the i before e rule or the old joke about how Northerners don’t end their sentences prepositions.

For all the focus and concern on what language is to be recognized and utilized, why is there not an equal concern with the failure of our schools to provide today’s students with the tools to compete in the world?  Where is the push to make basic language skills an expectation starting at grade one?

When my oldest daughter entered kindergarten, I decided to volunteer at her school, as her teacher’s assistant.  And I remember about a month into school when her teacher, Miss Salzburg, was working with the five and six year olds on their independent writing.  The goal was to give them a simple subject and let them expound upon it with whatever popped into their little brains.  And I distinctly remember one boy raised his hand and asked how to spell house.  Miss Salzburg, a first year teacher full of jaded ideas of saving the youth of the world and the latest of methods to do so, told the boy to sound it out.  He did and spelled it H-W-Z.  And she nodded and smiled, shooting me a silencing look and praised him in his work.  She later explained to me that the people in the know had found that correcting children when they misspell a word actually discourages them from being able to just get their thoughts out, because they focus so hard on how to spell and finding words they can spell to use in lieu of words they cannot.  What the hell happened to a dictionary? is what I wanted to ask.  I didn’t though.

When I was little, two or three, well even past that even, my father taught me how to spell.  As we sat down to dinner, I had to spell the condiments I wanted.  For several years I endured having French dressing on my salad, but I loved Thousand Island; but that was a hell of a thing to try to spell!  And I don’t believe I have been stunted in my thought process because I was expected to spell properly.  My father was probably much more demanding than any of my teachers were, in hindsight.  Each homework paper or writing assignment was heavily critiqued and red inked by him before it ever was presented to my teachers.  If I used the same adjective too many times over, I was instructed to dig out the thesaurus and find an alternative choice.  If I misspelled a word, he wouldn’t point it out directly; instead he would mark at the top that I had misspelled four words and it was left to me to go back and proofread my own work and find my own mistakes.  It was frustrating yes, but today I can spot a misspelling a mile away.

I don’t personally find it that frustrating when I go to the grocery store and see signs in both English and Spanish, I am realistic enough to understand that a large portion of the customers do not understand English.  I do find it irritating when I call support lines and hear the ‘press 1 for English option’, but this is more or less just my general aggravation at dealing with automated systems and having to spend even two more seconds on the line to hear that.  Again, consideration has to be given to the consumer.

The idea that a nation comprised entirely of descendants of immigrants should now be so damning to those who are not native is disappointing to me.  If they, being immigrants, plan to migrate into our country and take up residency, yes, they should strive toward learning our general language.  But should we ostracize them and make adjustment a Herculean feat, is there a need to make it mandatory?

I think there is a greater need to teach it accurately first.  Then we can worry about passing it on to others who come to our nation.

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