Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving and Linguistic Diversity

According to EyeWitness to, two members of the Pawtuxet tribe spoke English when meeting the most recent immigrants to their shores, the Pilgrims, at Plymouth. Subsequent interactions between  Native Americans and the new arrivals were also conducted in English, as was the first Thanksgiving in 1621. There is no record of the Pawtuxet requiring these immigrants to learn the local language. By contrast, staff at a recent United States Customs and Immigration Services appointment I had were rather dismissive of anybody there who spoke little English. More disturbing was a comment by a translator (not working in Spanish) during lunch at the recent ATA conference that "there is entirely too much Spanish in the U.S." and that this constitutes "a problem".

It seems to me that translators and interpreters should especially support the right of people to speak their own language -- if for nothing else, because our collective livelihood depends on it. Even if a particular translator does not speak the language in question, positing that one's own language combination is somehow superior to a different set of languages, is misguided, at best. As language professionals, if a specific language is prevalent in our environment, we should attempt to learn at least its rudiments.

Countries can have bi- or multilingual populations, as Switzerland, Belgium and many countries in Africa and Asia have demonstrated. When my children visited Southern Senegal a few years ago, they met a number of other teenagers who were fluent in three or four languages: the two main African languages in the region, Wolof and Mandinka, the former colonial language (which is still the official tongue), French, and English, which was taught in school as a foreign language.

So if you live in the U.S., learn at least a little Spanish. It not only facilitates your interaction with some of your neighbors, but you may even learn something about other traditions, including food. How about substituting platanos (mashed green bananas) for potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner?

If you are in the U.S., have a good holiday!/p>


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