Wednesday, April 21, 2010

It's No Fun Unless Someone Loses an Eye

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From Harvey A. Daniels. Famous last words: the American language crisis reconsidered. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983:
In Chicago, during the Christmas season of 1978, twenty-six Spanish-speaking people were killed in a series of tragic fires. Many of them perished because they could not understand the instructions that firemen shouted in English. When the city promptly instituted a program to teach the firefighters a few emergency phrases in Spanish, a storm of protest arose. "This is America," proclaimed the head of the Chicago Firefighters Union, "let them speak English." A local newspaper columnist suggested, with presumably innocent irony: "Let's stop catering to the still-flickering nationalistic desires to perpetuate the Latin heritage." The city's top-rated television newscaster used his bylined editorial minute to inveigh against the Spanish-teaching program in the firehouses.

An exasperated resident wrote to the letters column of the
Chicago Tribune: "I object to bilingual everything. It is a pretty low sort of person who wants to enjoy the benefits of this country while remaining apart from it, hiding in an ethnic ghetto." Another letter writer huffed: "What does it take to bring home to these stiff-necked Latinos that when they move to a foreign country the least they can do is learn the language? I, for one, am fed up with the ruination of the best country in the world." Still another correspondent was even more succinct: "If they can't understand two words -- don't jump -- they should go back where they came from." And after my own brief article on the language controversy appeared, an angry firefighter's wife wrote me to explain her husband's awful dilemma in being stationed in the Latino community: "Why should he risk his life for nothing?" she wondered.
From Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, The best war ever: lies, damned lies, and the mess in Iraq. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, 2006:
In November 2003 -- about the time that the initial euphoria of war began to fade in the United States -- Newsweek magazine reported a startling fact about the tactics Iraqi guerillas used against U.S. soldiers: "In Iraq, when guerrillas place an IED (improvised explosive device) by the side of the road, they sometimes write a warning on the street -- In Arabic. The locals understand to steer clear; the Americans drive right into the trap. 'Everyone knows about it except us,' grouses Lieutenant Julio Tirado of the 124th Infantry Division, Florida National Guard, patrolling warily in the town of Ramadi."...

[U.S. troops] don't simply lack an understanding of Iraq's history and culture, they lack even the language skills needed to communicate about basic, simple things. The enemies they are fighting do not need to be particularly intelligent to outmaneuver them, and they certainly don't need to be noble. (Indeed, they are not.) The mere fact that they can speak the[ir] native language confers a huge advantage over U.S. Forces, which cannot be overcome by mere money and technology, let alone by the arrogance that has been American's main defense against the realization that the war in Iraq was a mistake.

On November 15, 2005,
Wall Street Journal reporter Greg Jaffe told the story of David (last name withheld for security reasons), a U.S. Army foreign-affairs officer stationed undercover in northwestern Iraq. David wore civilian clothes and was so fluent in Arabic that the locals thought he was one of them. As a result, he was able to tell American military commanders how jihadist fighters had moved into Iraq across the Syrian border. He advised commanders and other officials on how to deal with their Iraqi counterparts and fired incompetent interpreters who had been hired by officials who didn't know the language. But here's the catch: he was one of only a handful of U.S. soldiers with those skills, and the military was in the process of pulling him out of Iraq. According to Colonel John D'Agostino, who oversaw his unit, "When David leaves, the U.S. Embassy's regional office in Mosul won't have a single Arabic speaker or Middle Eastern expert on its staff."

This shocking deficit is a reflection of one of the central yet rarely mentioned paradoxes about the role that the United States has come to occupy in the world. No other nation on earth is as involved in the affairs of other countries, yet the American people show very little knowledge of or even interest in knowing about those countries and their cultures. Hundreds of thousands of American troops are stationed on more than eight hundred military installations scattered throughout the world, and currently the United States is fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet whereas many citizens of Europe learn to speak several languages by the time they are adults, most people in the United States are lucky if they pick up even a smattering of French or German by the time they graduate from school. When large numbers of Hispanic immigrants began arriving in Florida and the U.S. southwest a couple of decades ago, the backlash included efforts to pass English-only laws that would restrict the immigrants' abilities to do business and communicate publicly in their native language.