Friday, April 25, 2008

Tongue Tied: English-only policies erect a different kind of language barrier

At first glance, the recent debate surrounding the institution of English-only policies in some U.S.-based organizations seems so ludicrous that it must be rooted in a joke. How, in our age of globalization, when companies are reaching out to clients and suppliers around the world, can we possibly enforce that English be the only language spoken in the workplace back home?

A deeper investigation reveals that, indeed, some firms are attempting to do just that, and employees who break the rules face everything from being passed up for promotion to getting the boot – just for addressing coworkers, and in some cases, international customers, in their mother tongue. The argument behind this ranges from the practical (safety is a concern and, understandably, the Federal Aviation Agency requires that pilots speak English well enough so that they are comprehensible when communicating over the airwaves), to the political (uni-lingual employees may feel threatened by their multi-lingual counterparts, out of concern that those communicating in a foreign language might be gossiping about them).

English and French are listed as official languages in Canada, and Canadians are accustomed to road signs, product labels and public announcements in both. There are two versions of the national anthem, and whenever the prime minister delivers a speech, he’s required to do it twice: once in his native tongue, and again, however shakily, in French. This doesn’t mean that the majority of Canadians are bilingual, however, and the ongoing language debate over how much we should protect the preservation of our French roots, and ensure that Quebec students are exposed to enough English, resurfaces every time some politician feels that they’re not getting enough attention from the press. In the end, it has little to do with language at all.

Following all of this from across the Big Pond is disheartening. In Paris, if you don’t speak at least three languages, you run the risk of feeling a bit inadequate. While English is accepted as the language of business – and job seekers at all levels must note on their résumes that they have a grasp of l’anglais if they wish to become gainfully employed – the more languages that one is familiar with, the more valuable they are to the professional community at large.

Pick any country on the map and you will eventually hear its language being spoken out on the street, often several times in the same day. The colorful mélange of French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Hebrew and everything else imaginable isn’t just music to the language lovers ears: it’s a window into how other cultures function, and what lies at their core. For someone who grew up in a uni-lingual (if officially bilingual) society, exposure to this is far more valuable than any textbook or Internet search. The chance to gain insight into something different in the comfort of one’s home country shouldn’t be viewed as a threat, then, but as a golden opportunity and a powerful motivator to learn.

Film director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck recently inked a Hollywood deal to remake his award-winning film, The Lives of Others (that’s Das Leben der Anderen in his mother tongue) – a story involving East Berlin’s intelligentsia during the time of the Stasi – for American audiences. It’s obvious why von Donnersmarck signed on the dotted line, and why Hollywood producers tagged the concept as a potentially profitable one. But one still wonders what renders a studio in Tinseltown better qualified to tell a story that is, inarguably, German…and hopes that it’s only a few big-wigs that believe the viewing public wouldn’t be interested in watching the original, albeit with English sub-titles, but performed in Deutsch.