I saw the following sign at a Hong Kong public transportation interchange today. The sign includes three linguistic versions of “first class.” The sign can be read by Hongkongers/Taiwanese/Singaporeans (頭等), Mainland Chinese (头等) and English speakers.
Hong Kong maintains a “biliterate and trilingual” policy, meaning that Chinese and English are both official written languages and that Cantonese, Mandarin and English are the territory’s main spoken languages (see more here). Government websites and forms are written in Chinese and English. Announcements on the MTR (subway) are in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
Because of Hong Kong’s policy, I have the chance to hear all sorts of public service announcements on local media. Through these announcements I have learned that:
- Scattering of cremated ashes in designated Gardens of Remembrance is free of charge and promoted by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (as Hong Kong is rather tight on burial space). I am a proponent of cremation and yet, the word “food” following so closely after the mention of human remains gives me a start every time.
- “Our hands are important” and thus we should take special care to keep them clean. Especially during this winter’s avian flu scare.
- “We” should check our drains regularly during the rainy season.
Does it hurt anyone to see a trilingual sign, read a bilingual government form or listen to a PSA in a language they understand? I can’t imagine an instance when it does.
And yet, there is a small group of Americans who are dead-set against the use of any language other than English. For example, this quote was shared on my Facebook feed by several relatives from Utah:
“I will not be forced to learn a foreign language to accommodate illegals in my country.”
Because I’m too passive-aggressive to write a response on Facebook, I’ll rebut the nonsense here (in preparation for an in-person rebuttal after I’ve had a few drinks during this summer’s “home leave”).
“forced to learn” I see no evidence that anyone is being forced to learn Spanish. Do you work at the New Mexico Department of Licensing? Then you might be able to do your job better if you speak Spanish. But that’s skill tied to a particular job like any other. Learning a second language, like learning MS Access, can be frustrating and mildly painful, but is not permanently harmful and can be useful on a CV.
“foreign language” While English is the most commonly spoken language in America, there is no official language at the national level. After English, the second most commonly spoken language is Spanish, with 35 million residents speaking it as their primary language at home. (For more information on the topic of languages in the US, see this Wikipedia article.)
“accommodate” What is the problem with accommodating? There are many stores in the southwestern US with window signs reading “Se Habla Español.” It means that they have a staff member who speaks Spanish. They do it because it’s good for business. Similarly, when taxes are collected (using government produced forms) isn’t it helpful if those paying taxes can read the forms? I speak some Chinese and am always working to learn more, but I could not fill out a tax form that was only in Chinese.
“illegals” Assuming that all (or even a majority) of Spanish-speakers are illegally in America is bullshit (see here).
So what are we left with?
Bigotry and fear.
(Thanks to Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” young reader book series for the T-shirt quote in my comic: “Reading might offend you. Why take the chance?“)