That’s my high school Spanish translation of “we speak a little English here.”
I live near Natick, Massachusetts, the unlikely home of what I’m told is the largest Home Depot in the world (for now – word is that there is a bigger one is going into Palo Alto, CA). The presence of this behemoth has kept competitors out of the local market until now. A brand-spankin’ new Lowe’s opened its doors just down the street this week. Being the “home improvement store” slut that I am, I had to run right over and check it out.
As I entered the almost empty (of people) warehouse of a store I was blown away by the huge amount of . . . Spanish. That’s right. The unbelievable amount of the Spanish language everywhere I looked. So much so that I often had trouble finding the English. It was always there, of course, and while generally on the top or to the left of the Spanish, it was by no means more visible. Interestingly, my eye kept going right to the Spanish instead of the English. I’m sure there is some cognitive/perceptive explanation for that. I found it truly distracting and, in the end, annoying enough to drive me out of the store.
It wasn’t just the signs – of which there were always dozens in my field of vision – but all the packaging had a combination of Spanish and English, too. Often the combination of the languages on the packaging was even more confusing than the signage in the store. The packaging frequently interleaved English and Spanish – each feature in English immediately followed by the same in Spanish. With this structure, I couldn’t just read the package (top to bottom or left to right) in a single language.
Funny enough, if there is a second language in the geographic area of the store, it’s probably Portuguese. The area has a relatively large and rapidly expanding Brazilian population.
I have no problem with many languages being spoken in this country, but I feel strongly that everyone must be able to speak at least one common language. Since this country was founded with English as its primary language and, for the time being at least, the majority of people speak English, that should be the common language – regardless of what other languages are spoken at home, between friends or in private. The inability to communicate within society, at the very least will create a huge cultural chasm, class differences, absurd costs of doing business and a split in society. Just look at Quebec. The division between French and English speakers has caused a huge rift and constant turmoil in the Canadian province. As my good friend Lorne Cooper recalls from his time growing up in Quebec . . .
- Half the people don’t talk to each other.
- In practice, having two languages means institutionalizing a majority and minority, and in the long run the minority it is protecting gets disadvantaged.
- Successful societies have as much in common as possible, and language is one of the biggest barriers to sharing a culture.
For Lowe’s, this is simply a business issue. They are doing what they feel they need to do to have a competitive advantage. I can’t blame them for that. My issue is with how American government and society, in general, are dealing with the rapidly growing problem. Or not dealing with it, as the case may be.
This has happened before in this country. Prior to World War I, there were many languages spoken in the US and the melting pot wasn’t melting so quickly. World War I was a binding force of patriotism, though, and brought everyone together. This included the wide-spread convergence of all communication to a single language – English. I’m not suggesting that global warfare is a solution, of course, but unless we’re all willing to stand by and watch a wedge splitting American society, the government is going to have to step in and mandate how this will be handled. While I am almost always against having the government attempting to control behavior, there are times when society itself isn’t motivated enough as a group to do the right thing – think civil rights.
Does anyone actually feel that challenging areas like education, medicine or emergency services get any easier to manage by doubling-up on the number of languages that constitute a baseline for society? How about something as simple as roads – directions and signs? Businesses having to promote their products to two distinct groups instead of one? The cost to a society is huge and it needs to be dealt with before it runs completely out of control. I’m afraid it’s well on its way there . . .