Thursday, July 19, 2007

Thoughts on Culture (a.k.a. my latest frustration)

I've heard a joke that goes, "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American." Granted, that may be more insulting to Americans than funny, but there is a grain of truth in it.

Since I've been back in the U.S. I've been involved in several conversations about immigrants, particularly Hispanic people who choose to retain their language and culture while they live here. All the comments I've heard have been quite derogatory, one woman even admitting that she told an immigrant to "Go home!!" because he's been here 37 years and never learned the language. I have never been in a more awkward conversation in my life.

The cross-cultural training I've had over the years has encouraged me to engage in whatever host culture I visit, including learning the language. So I'll be the first to say that it's not the healthiest thing to move to another culture and never acculturate. But I have to point out a few things. First of all, it is very difficult to learn a new language, particularly if you are poor and just trying to provide for your family - you don't have the time or money to invest in studying. So if you are provided with the opportunity to stay in your comfort zone, who wouldn't take it? My experience is that most Americans living overseas to make money (significantly more money I might add) choose to huddle in English speaking bubbles themselves. We naturally take the path of least resistance.

People have also complained that more and more things like signs or instructions are also in Spanish. Well do we really want to be the only country in the world that is monolingual? Would it kill us to learn another one? And does it really hurt us to see another language while we drive?

And finally, have we forgotten that all of us are immigrants in this country, aside from native Americans? This country was meant to be a place where people could find new hope and new life in the context of diverse culture. Maybe we don't like having to adapt, but I think that in accepting more cultures, we have the opportunity to learn and become more diverse ourselves.

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