Signs of Insecurity

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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 grocerystore asked me if I had ever been to Korea. Surprised, I said I had, andasked why she thought so. "Oh, I'm Korean," she said. "You handed the milkto me the way a Korean would hand it."

Another more subtle change that others may not see is the way I view myfellow Americans. My first observation: Many Americans seem very insecurewhen 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 Koreanpresence in their once-sleepy town. Some have complained to county officialsand at community meetings about signs in Korean with no Englishtranslations, the poor English of Korean employees at Korean-ownedbusinesses and Korean restaurants without menus in English.

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

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

In addition to road signs, such English-only laws are snaring privateestablishments. Earlier this year, a Georgia woman was fined $115 forposting 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. Thelocal marshal, citing safety concerns, said "mercado" must be changedbecause most residents won't be able to read it. "If an American was outthere 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 notthe official language, nor should it be required in the conduct of privateaffairs. Communities should refrain from punishing private individuals whoput a foreign language sign on their business, church or home.

In addition to the complaints about the signs, some people in Annandalecomplained about Koreans who cannot speak English. It is a cherished -- butfalse -- myth that most 19th century immigrants from Europe eagerly learnedEnglish. One reason why compulsory school attendance laws were adopted wasthat many of those new immigrants weren't learning English and didn't careto learn it, either. Many came to make money and learned just enough Englishto survive. It was often their children who became fluent in English, justas Korean parents today are making sure their children become fluent in thelanguage of their new land. Koreans today are not doing anything that otherimmigrants did not do in the past.

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

Casey J. Lartigue Jr.

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