Learning to be tolerant trumps need to learn English

 
 
Published3/21/2009 12:04 AM

During a week when some Americans celebrated by waving the flag of Ireland on St. Patrick's Day, dozens of comment-posters at www.dailyherald.com got their Irish up.

It started when reporter Russell Lissau wrote a story in which Wauconda trustee candidate Mark Kwasigroch said Spanish-speaking residents of the village "need to learn how to read English if they're going to live in Wauconda."

 

That comment immediately ignited an ugly debate fueled by insults, lies and hate, where anyone who suggests residents learn English was branded a racist, while anyone willing to tolerate anything less than all-English-all-the-time was a bed-wetting, liberal wimp or an "illegal alien."

"They should no (sic) English before they get a job here," read my favorite post, which apparently was written by a critic who has know job or doesn't no any better.

"You don't like the language, get out," was a common refrain.

A discussion on the merits of printing copies of a village newsletter in Spanish morphed into, "Give the Statue of Liberty back to France and let them take the illegals."

"This is our country, not theirs," read a post not written in Tiwa, Cree or Apache.

"This is still my America and I'm taking it back," another vowed.

A "Mexican" song playing on the sound system at one suburban Wal-Mart inspired an outraged person to complain, "This is NOT Mexico."

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I think it would be great if everybody in this nation (including native English speakers) were literate in English. I think Wauconda should try to make the 16 percent of its residents who speak Spanish a welcome and contributing part of the community. And I hope the next generation of Americans can speak English, Spanish and Mandarin.

My ancestors who came here from England made the effort to learn how to spell colour the American way. They cashed a government check without calling it a cheque. They learned to say schedule without the "shh." They used an outhouse, not the loo. They traded Stilton cheese and steak and kidney pie for slices of American cheese on hamburgers. And when they did sneak a little Yorkshire pudding at Christmas, they didn't rub our American faces in it.

But I have met really decent Americans throughout the suburbs whose parents or grandparents have lived here for decades and still can't read a book in English. They go to mass in Polish. They buy Korean newspapers. They speak Greek at the mall. For some, the only English is what they pick up from our movies and TV shows, capice?

We can do a better job of teaching residents to read and speak English without being so ignorantly proud about being a monolingual nation.

"That's the way its (sic) been for the last 400 years and there should be no changing now," reads a typical comment (albeit one with "its" instead of the proper English "it's").

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While our Declaration of Independence is written in English, it isn't true that our ancestors quickly picked up English on their own. Colonists celebrated the arrival of Sinter Klaus in New Amsterdam for years before Santa Claus became part of the parade in New York City. The paper now known as the Daily Herald once included an insert published in German for our readers who didn't know English. Now we publish Reflejos, which is written in Spanish and English.

A recent study debunks the idea that our immigrant ancestors quickly learned English and the American ways. Researchers Joseph Salmons, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Miranda Wilkerson, now an assistant visiting professor at Western Illinois University, discovered that many immigrants ignored English and relied solely on German schools, churches and business for decades and two or three generations.

"After 50 or more years of living in the United States, many speakers in some communities remained monolingual (in German)," the authors wrote. In one town, the Irish immigrants new to America learned German to fit in.

Our Founding Fathers, many of whom were Europeans, looked at languages in a more worldly way. According to Rosetta Stone, the language-teaching company, Thomas Jefferson was fluent in six languages and John Quincy Adams was fluent in French and could speak Dutch.

President Martin Van Buren spoke Dutch growing up in New York and learned English as a second language. James Garfield taught Greek and Latin. Teddy Roosevelt read poems in German and French. Herbert Hoover spoke Mandarin, and Woodrow Wilson learned German. Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French, which came in handy during World War II.

Jimmy Carter writes some speeches in Spanish. George H.W. Bush speaks French. George W. Bush gets mocked for messing up English, but he and his brother, Jeb, can speak Spanish. Barack Obama stuck his foot in his mouth speaking English with Jay Leno, but Obama can communicate in Indonesian and speaks a little Spanish.

We'd be a stronger America if our residents knew English and another language or two. But more importantly, our nation needs to embrace our long history of immigration and show more tolerance to people of all languages.

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