Wednesday, September 03, 2008

English as a second language

A review of Joseph Horowitz's new book, Artists in Exile, quotes this great line: "Otto Preminger, hearing a group of his fellow émigrés speaking Hungarian, said, 'Don’t you people know you’re in Hollywood? Speak German.'"

This reminded me of the recent decision by the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) to require its members to speak English. Considering that a third of the membership is Korean, it would make more sense to give Korean and English equal status, no?

Being an immigrant from a non-English-speaking country myself, I'm torn when it comes to the issue of language. On the one hand, I love hearing diverse languages when I walk the streets of New York, and speaking in the tongue you grew up in is an irreplaceable treasure, both affective and cultural. On the other hand, it's undeniable that not being able to speak English well hampers immigrants. When I was doing my immigration papers, I was repeatedly shocked by the insulting way employees would treat applicants who didn't speak English well. The system is hard enough to figure out if you speak the language; if you don't, it's practically impossible—or it costs a lot of money.

What I truly cannot stand is American boors who espouse the "speak English or leave" motto, especially when very often their own grasp on English is tenuous. In my job, I correct native speakers' English every day, and it brings me a lot of satisfaction. I'm especially harsh on those with a lazy approach, those who don't bother with correct grammar, spelling and capitalization. I've worked hard to master a second language, and I have little patience for those who take their first one for granted.

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