Tuesday, March 8, 2011


The United-States is now the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world; but as the language becomes more widely used and interacts with the more dominant English, the opportunities to mangle it are spreading like a virus.

Gerardo Pina-Rosales who heads the North American Academy of the Spanish Language encouraged educators in Miami just a few days ago to join with an unprecedented hemispheric wide effort to reach out to future generations of Hispanic Americans to embrace bilingualism and multiculturalism.

Of course to Canadians; and the many living or raised in or very near the French speaking province of Quebec; the debate evolving in the United-States sounds somewhat familiar to the issues widely discussed, debated and virtually fought-over by Canadians forty or fifty years ago.

History, and in particular the economic domination of the United-States through much of the 20th Century meant that America's linguistic and multicultural evolution stagnated behind that of its European, Asian and other overseas business partners. And, quite substantially behind that of its continental partner to the north where circumstances of history forced Canadians (perhaps earlier than most) to come to terms with their cultural duality.

While the current confrontations and unrest sweeping over the Middle East and in North Africa may be in large measure fueled by a greater desire for self-determination; they are also being coloured by elements and factions within the various diverse cultures and religious beliefs involved.

The United-States is still caught-up in the depths of the economic crisis and because there are no Constitutional rights to guarantee the teaching of a second language, teachers of Spanish fear that language programs will be the first targeted when State Governments try to reign-in their spiralling expenses and debt. America's emerging debate over bilingualism and multiculturalism is surfacing at a time elsewhere, particularly in western Europe and just recently in Canada when multiculturalism as a national political objective is on the defensive and increasingly opposed and criticized.

There have been charges particularly in modern Europe that embracing multiculturalism has given rise to growing tensions and problems with immigrant arrivals, ironically many of whom immigrate from the Middle-East. The same neo-conservative movement which is sweeping the United-States and to a lesser degree Canada is already entrenched in Europe; and political leaders there; among them right-wing politicians French President Sakozy; German Chancellor Merkel and British Prime-Minister Cameron; have been critical of past practices. President Sarkozy said just last month that France's policies on multiculturalism have failed and that newcomers should..."accept to melt in a single society."

Canada has not been immune from the controversy. In Quebec the Provincial Government was forced to create a commission on "Reasonable Accommodation" in 2008 after several rural communities balked over the arrival of immigrants from cultures different from those of the original European settlers. The problem is exacerbated in Quebec because most new arrivals, somewhat like the Spanish and Latino arrivals to the United-States, choose to learn and to speak English. In fact a group of Quebec intellectuals recently proposed an alternative they described as "Interculturalism" which would take for granted the centrality of the French culture; and from there work to integrate minorities into a common public culture that respects diversity.

The value of being bilingual (or more) in an era of globalization should not be ignored. Though with the issue in the United-States seemingly in its infancy compared to Europe and to Canada; American politicians would be wise to draw valuable lessons from those who have been down this road before.

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