Monday, September 21, 2009

Esperanza Rising - Speaking the Language

One issue Esperanza often mentions is she doesn't speak English.

Many (perhaps most?) of us are reading the book in English, so that seems so odd:
Esperanza could hear them talking in English, the words hard and clipped, as if they were speaking with sticks in their mouths. They all looked at her and laughed. She turned away, thinking if Isabel could learn English, then maybe someday she could learn it too.
The clerks all spoke to one another in English, their hard, sharp words meaning nothing to Esperanza. It always startled her when she heard Engish and she hated not knowing what people were saying. Someday she would learn it.
We know that Esperanza and her friends and family are all bright, friendly, intelligent and imaginative people. And, they all speak Spanish to each other. Not English.

It's terribly easy to think that someone who doesn't speak the same language as you is slow, uninteresting and valueless.
"Esperanza, people here think that all Mexicans are alike. They think that we are all undereducated, dirty, poor, and unskilled. It does not occur to them that many have been trained in professions in Mexico."
Probably as a large part, the Mexicans were terribly discriminated against - in education, employment, housing, and more. It's a problem Mexican Americans have been battling since huge chunks of Mexico suddenly became part of the United States in the mid 1800s.

We often forget that English is NOT the "official language" of the United States. In fact, many citizens of the United Kindom would dispute the idea that English is ever used in the United States! So when you say "I speak perfectly good English, and (person speaking a language other than English) should too!", remember, you're speaking a dialect that often makes Englishmen snicker, and think poorly of you because your English is so "bad!"

People from different ethnic backgrounds often speak in a different dialect, with a different rhythm to their speech. Chicano English is a typical example of this. African American English (sometimes called Ebonics) is another. In Huck Finn, which we read last month, Jim spoke in a heavy version of African American English. Because his dialect was so thick, it was easy to dismiss Jim as stupid or gullible. Jim was neither of these. No unintelligent person could have jumped through all the silly hoops Huck and Tom had Jim working on at the end of the book. When the family found all the artifacts Jim left in the shed, I was amazed at Jim's sheer ability to produce the intricate and convincing articles, given the limited resources he had.

So, should English be the "official language" of the United States? Is people speaking other languages a threat to American English? Or should we just break down and ban English entirely, as some early Americans suggested?

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