Wednesday, February 08, 2006

One book but which language?

I wanted to bring out more thoughts around Liz's essay on One City, One Book. This city-wide reading idea has been used in Seattle for some time, and I don't think that the availability of Spanish was an issue, though I could be wrong. However, in our town, Spanish is not the second language. Instead, the language with the most speakers after English is Chinese. Our voting registration information is in English and Chinese. When you land at Sea-Tac airport, the languages on the subway train to the baggage claim have been English, Japanese and Chinese for decades, with later addition of Russian. Spanish is growing here, as everywhere in the United States, but unlike California, Seattle is more an Asian city than a Hispanic one. So if the One City, One Book folks here were thinking of the availability of a language, Spanish would not necessarily have been the first language in the running.
This brought my thoughts to the rise of Spanish as the de-facto second language in the United States in general, and what that means for speakers of other languages besides English and Spanish. As I receive panel proposals for the ALTA conference, it seems that at times the proposer assumes that I know Spanish, which, alas, is not the case. (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, German, French, some Hungarian, some Hebrew, some Yiddish and now some Chinese is frankly all I can, and most likely will muster in this lifetime, though our exchange student is pushing me to learn some Vietnamese in exchange for some Latin). My hometown of Waukegan is now about 40% Spanish-speaking, and at times when home on a visit, I have been greeted in Spanish, a development during the past decade which initially surprised me, but now is a fact of Waukegani life. My reactions to this confuse me, since I love languages and have been eagerly learning them all my life. I surmise that it is this assumption that I should/must/ought to know Spanish that is getting under my skin a bit. Well, should it? Or should I learn enough Spanish to get along with the other folks in the town in which I was born? Maybe I should...but for now I am sticking to Chinese. Does that make me racist? Does it? Would it make me racist in Waukegan or California but not in Seattle? Inquiring minds want to know.
So, one book, one city, which language -- and here in Seattle, should it be Chinese?


Anonymous said...

Oh, heck forget about being racist. I say, study the languages you want to study -- certainly there are more of them than a person could learn in 10 lifetimes. P.S. Let's all learn Esperanto!

Liz said...

I think our book program is trying to bridge a very clearly defined cultural divide. And if we chose a book that was only available in English, we'd automatically exclude about half the town's population. Since there's plenty of good books that have Spanish and English versions, I think the town should commit to choosing from that subset of books! We're also trying to choose something that's available on audiocassette.

If my town's population were more diverse then yes, it would be way harder to include everyone. As it is, I think there's a sizable amount of immigrants from southern Mexico and Guatemala, whose first language isn't Spanish, and we don't even begin to get into that problem, though I think it's a factor in pushing us to chose, say, a Gary Soto young adult book over Isabel Allende or Jack Kerouac, because the basic reading level would be easier.

I wonder if a big city like Seattle could actually fund translations or partly subsidize multiple-language print runs of their chosen books? That way one book *could* be available in many of the population's languages.

I also think it could be a very cool program if extended to newspapers. Serial publication in daily or weekly Chinese or Spanish newspapers might be popular...

About Spanish being a "default" language in the U.S., I think that's especially true in California and the southwestern states.