Commentary

Signs of Insecurity

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
June 19, 1999
Returning to America after spending several years in Korea and Taiwan, I wondered if I had gone through noticeable changes. I guessed that I probably had, after more than five years of bowing as a greeting, removing my shoes as I enter a house and standing when someone older enters the room.

I had been back for less than a week when a shopkeeper at a small grocery store asked me if I had ever been to Korea. Surprised, I said I had, and asked why she thought so. “Oh, I’m Korean,” she said. “You handed the milk to me the way a Korean would hand it.”

Another more subtle change that others may not see is the way I view my fellow Americans. My first observation: Many Americans seem very insecure when it comes to foreign languages.

In a May 16 feature on the flourishing Koreatown in Annandale, Virginia, the Washington Post noted that some locals resent the very visible Korean presence in their once-sleepy town. Some have complained to county officials and at community meetings about signs in Korean with no English translations, the poor English of Korean employees at Korean-owned businesses and Korean restaurants without menus in English.

There are many reasons why Americans do not learn foreign languages. But should we get worked up about some signs being in other languages? Twenty-two states have passed laws and referenda proclaiming English to be their “official language.” Some local communities seem to be using such laws to prohibit signs in foreign languages. And in at least one case, a battle over English-only laws and multilingualism was literally taken to the streets.

In Philadelphia in 1986, after Korean community groups raised money to pay for road signs written in Korean, residents of the north Philadelphia community of Olney voted to have the signs removed. Vandals later destroyed the signs and covered them with American flags. In Houston last year, Korean groups raised money to pay for Korean street signs in Spring Branch. The groups withdrew the proposal after tempers flared.

In addition to road signs, such English-only laws are snaring private establishments. Earlier this year, a Georgia woman was fined $115 for posting the name “Supermercado Jalisco” on her store. Mercado means “market”; Jalisco is the Mexican state where she was born. Georgia mandates that at least 75 percent of each sign be in English. The local marshal, citing safety concerns, said “mercado” must be changed because most residents won’t be able to read it. “If an American was out there driving by, he wouldn’t know what that was,” the marshal said.

Although English is the language used by most people in America, it is not the official language, nor should it be required in the conduct of private affairs. Communities should refrain from punishing private individuals who put a foreign language sign on their business, church or home.

In addition to the complaints about the signs, some people in Annandale complained about Koreans who cannot speak English. It is a cherished — but false — myth that most 19th century immigrants from Europe eagerly learned English. One reason why compulsory school attendance laws were adopted was that many of those new immigrants weren’t learning English and didn’t care to learn it, either. Many came to make money and learned just enough English to survive. It was often their children who became fluent in English, just as Korean parents today are making sure their children become fluent in the language of their new land. Koreans today are not doing anything that other immigrants did not do in the past.

The squeamishness of some Americans about multilingualism is surprising, especially considering that American culture and the English language dominate the world. American movies such as Titanic and Star Wars are shown in theaters in Taiwan and Japan; Japanese and German businessmen conduct deals in English; road signs around the world include English along with the native language. English has become the lingua franca of the world, a result of the success and prominence of a nation of immigrants.

Casey J. Lartigue Jr. is a staff writer at the Cato Institute.