Guest Columnist

Embrace diversity of language

Books in English and Spanish share space in an Eastern Iowa kindergarten classrom in this file photo.
Books in English and Spanish share space in an Eastern Iowa kindergarten classrom in this file photo.

Two events that have gone viral on social media have to do with reaction to people speaking Spanish in informal domains.

Two women were detained by border agents in Montana for speaking Spanish as reported by ABC News Tonight with David Muir, May 20. Days before, a lawyer in New York yelled at restaurant employees for speaking Spanish and threatened to report them to authorities.

Historically, the newcomer has generally become the perceived reason of national economic problems, a burden, and a threat to what we see as ours culturally or linguistically. Diversity will not destroy cultures nor languages. On the contrary, migrants and their languages may have a positive impact on society. Culture and language will accommodate to the new social ecology.

This kind of hostility to speakers of languages different from English is not entirely new to the USA. It is a manifestation of the ideology of monolingualism under which individuals are expected to maintain separation of their linguistic systems. This monolingual ideology construes that plurilingual individuals should compartmentalize their monolingual proficiencies.

In the past, speakers of different languages have been perceived as a cultural and linguistic threat to the US for example speakers of Chinese and German suffered public discrimination and censorship in different historical periods. Currently, the public discourse has targeted Spanish speakers which is showing, first, the insecurity of the monolingual English speakers who do not understand what is being said. Second, we, migrants, want to integrate culturally and learn the national language of the new countries where we landed but that doesn’t mean forgetting our native languages. We want to add to our linguistic repertoire not to subtract any element of it.

When speakers of targeted languages find themselves unable to use their preferred language in informal contexts whenever is not required for the context to speak the majority language of the new country, linguistic discrimination takes place. Millions of people are on the move globally. The figures get higher and we don’t have the exact number, but they range from 222 million to 244 million given by International the Organization for Migration. What we know for sure is while the figures of migrants get higher, speakers of different languages get together in higher proportions. Let’s change the ideology of monolingualism for an open embracement of plurilinguism. A world of moving populations in fundamentally plurilingual where different languages are used in different contexts and for different purposes.

Let’s face it, populations are more mobile than ever and societies all over the world undergo a process of increased linguistic diversification, social mobility is an ever-present factor. Let’s work toward understanding that speaking a native language is not an affront against English. Along the lines of the sociolinguistics of mobility, which situates migrants in the new space in a new linguistic milieu, let’s accept that the signs of the times are linguistic diversity, fluidity, instability, human mobility and plurilinguism.

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• Mercedes Niño-Murcia is a professor in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese and a sociocultural linguist at the University of Iowa.

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