Friday, June 09, 2006

Speaka the English?

Joseph Vento, the proprieter of a cheesesteak shop in an immigrant-heavy section of South Philadelphia, has a new rule.
If you can't form the English words "cheesesteak and large fry, please," you can't eat in his restaurant.
No shirt, no shoes, no English, no service.
Apparently, the language barrier became enough of a problem that Vento posted a sign about six months ago stating "This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING `SPEAK ENGLISH.'"
On one hand, Vento has a point. Your average cheesesteak shop employee shouldn't have to be versed in six different languages to take orders. But the "This is AMERICA" line bothers me. As the linked story says, Vento's own grandparents struggled to learn English after migrating from Sicily in the 1920s.
That line reeks of the idea that us native-born English speakers are American and non-native-born, non-English speakers aren't. Legally, that might be true. But at one point within the past 150 years, chances are your ancestors were also one of them, and struggled with learning the complex, piecemealed and downright confusing language that is modern English. And, much like with Vento's cheesesteak shop, they didn't get a lot of sympathy from the born-and-bred locals.
Vento's sign is more evidence of just how conceited we've become as a country, and it's going to hurt us in the long run. We think we're global, but we're not as global as we'd like to believe.
It's bad enough that your average German college student knows English as well as most Americans. When we go to a Western European country, we almost expect that the locals are going to be near-fluent in English. On the other hand, we can barely say "me go potty" in their native tongue.
The rest of the world goes out of their way to conform to us, because the language of America is the language of money. But that promotes laziness on our end, and those other countries are going to gain ground on us because of their multilingual abilities.
The best place to start learning other languages is when immigrants come to America with their language and customs. But, again, as the sign says, this is AMERICA. Conform to our standards or get out.
Vento says he's doing recent immigrants a favor by forcing them to learn English. Maybe he's doing them a less obvious favor, too. If you don't learn English, you can't buy a cheesesteak, which means you can't make them a regular part of your diet, which means you won't keel over from heart disease at age 50.
That means more cheesesteaks for John Q. American. So while all of us English speakers are getting angioplasties and quadruple bypasses, our far-healthier immigrant neighbors will take over the country, teaching us multiple languages and how to be a better player in the global market.
Maybe there's hope for us yet. Keep it English, Mr. Vento.

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