October 9, 2005

Not Lost in Translation

On our recent family trip to Disneyland I noticed something new: all the announcements and cautionary instructions for rides were both in English and Spanish. The all-American theme park had changed in a remarkable way.

My Southern California friends are surprised when I tell them that bilingualism is very much a part of our lives in Washington, DC as well. No, not in those hallowed halls of the Capitol but on the streets and the marketplaces around town. Signs on our busses and at retailers like Home Depot and Ikea are in Spanish and English (the only holdout of any major proportion is the subway). “Friends,” I say, “we have a sizable Latino population here in DC, primarily Central American.” We enrolled both our daughters in a Spanish dual language program at school. Math and reading are taught to them in both English and Spanish (and instructions for their homework often are in Spanish only).

The push by Anglophiles and organizations like English First, to make English the official language of the United States is countered not by “commie liberals” bent on destroying our American way, but more simply by demographics and commerce. We are becoming a bilingual nation by default. Retailers (and theme park owners) realize that it is simply good business (i.e. more lucrative business) to make it easier for large portions of our population to shop their stores and use their services.

Columbus Day sign on my bank's window

Commemorating an event from two very different points of view.

So it wasn’t surprising my local Bank of America would post signs in both English and Spanish stating it would be closed for the Columbus Day holiday. What was interesting was that their sign was not just a translation of the language but a translation of the cultures to which it spoke.

Posted on entrance doors and windows big red signs proclaimed the bank’s closure on Monday, October 10 for not only Columbus Day but for El Día de la Raza (“Day of the Race”). Two holidays celebrating two very different aspects of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World.

To a large number of Americans Columbus Day commemorates the explorer’s landing in the Bahamas in 1492. Italian Americans celebrate it with pride. But to an ever growing part of the population it represents the beginning of a 15th century holocaust and the advent of slaves in the Americas.

The second Monday in October celebrates two very different aspects to the discovery of the New World. As cultural identity bumps into assimilation, NAFTA, and globalization we are experiencing a very different America. Some fear these changes while others embrace them. This presents a quandary to both the Republican and Democratic parties (but especially the Republicans) as fiscal policy (let the market determine our direction) conflicts with social policy (in order to succeed immigrants must assimilate and accept the basic tenets of the dominant culture).

I was reminded of this clash as I walked into my neighborhood bank to cash some checks. If you didn’t speak Spanish you wouldn’t pick up the clue this sign gives us about the changes in this country.

Columbus Day has become a holiday that represents exactly where this country stands at the beginning of the 21st century.

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1492 marked another important holocaust. It was the year the Jews were expelled from greater Spain. In fact, their confiscated spoils were what paid for Columbus’s trip to the “New World”. In 1493, the Moors were also expelled by the Catholic crown of Spain. Thus ended the golden age of Spain, when Jews, Arabs, and Christians lived together not only peacefully, but created a cultural renaissance in literature and science.

Posted by: Nina on October 9, 2005 1:40 PM

Interesting observation. I’ve lived in several other countries as an American abroad and although most of my political beliefs fall into the category of liberal, this is one where I often surprise my conservative friends.

I’m a big believer in encouraging immigrants to learn English and to speak it consistently at home with their children. This is holding them back probably more than anything else. I’m not sure what the numbers are but in many areas Spanish wouldn’t be the choice of second language. Some schools would choose Korean, Chinese, or Vietnamese. The country isn’t as small as Belgium is so having more than one official language would be a mess here.

We also have such a problem with lack of funding in our public schools that I’d rather see the money spent elsewhere. Meaning I’d rather have language taught as a class, not bi-lingual math classes where you hope your native English speaking child gets the math homework assignment correctly. Did you have the option to enroll your kids in a language class or was this the only way they could learn Spanish?

Posted by: Donna on October 9, 2005 2:09 PM

I didn’t mean to imply we shouldn’t encourage people to learn English. The point I was making was that free enterprise was fueling bilingualism. This is a bit ironic, given the Conservatives’ reliance on and almost religious fervor for Capitalism.

In answer to your question, yes, enrollment in our dual language program is voluntary. And we monitor our daughters’ understanding of the material whether it’s presented in English or Spanish. For us, learning math trumps learning it in Spanish. However, that being said, children are amazingly skillful at conceptualizing in multiple languages.

Posted by: Jeff on October 9, 2005 2:39 PM

Well, considering that most of the poor people inside the Mickey Mouse suits are Latins, it’s fair that signage is bilingual.

Posted by: sosa on October 10, 2005 10:29 AM

I am a Spanish-speaking Central American who has been lucky enough to visit the U.S. several times recently. Perhaps because of my English background, my philosophy in regards to living in a foreign country with a foreign language comes closer to the “When in Rome…” philosophy, and for that reason I can’t help but sympathize, if even a little, with those Americans who fear the menace of their country becoming a giant Latino melting pot.

One thing I greatly resent from my Latino peers is that, instead of trying to learn a little on the history and culture of the country that is feeding them and open themselves to communication with American natives, they just refuse to do so, isolating themselves on their Latin ghettos in a “my way or the highway” fashion, thereby self-segregating themselves without even being aware of it in most cases. After all, the only reason most Latinos get through all the trouble of making it to the States is because they need to escape from the politic and economic hell that their countries are, and to make a buck or two to send home while at it.

I’m all for multicultural diversity and all that, but I feel that if we tried to understand Americans a little further and tried to connect more with their language, culture and values (not assume, but at least understand and respect), the melting pot concept would not be so frowned upon by many Americans, I believe.

Posted by: beto on October 10, 2005 12:47 PM

My own position has always been, if I were residing in another country where one language predominated, I would learn that language.

Washington Cube Was Here. #369

Posted by: Washington Cube on October 16, 2005 10:58 PM

I worked in the public school system for over 15 years. I have to agree with Beto’s comment. The parents of the children in most cases not only refuse to learn the language of the land but insist that their children translate for them. The children are taught to respect their parents and do what they can to assist. In doing so the parents do not learn and the children usually remain in the family fold.

Posted by: Pamela on October 25, 2005 5:23 PM

Comments are now closed for this post. But there are a few other entries which might provoke an opinion or two.

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