Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On the Bastardization of Language

All countries will have variations in language. We typically call proper English “the Queen’s English” or we will call proper Spanish “Castilian Spanish” (although Latin American Spanish is certainly recognized in its own right). But, no nation like the United States has butchered language like we do. The United States is quickly becoming a Tower of Babel. But, in the United States, instead of correcting the problem, we romanticize it by giving it cutesy names like “Spanglish” or “Ebonics.” Children who attempt to enter the workforce using Spanglish or Ebonics are doomed to fail (or spend a career at McDonalds).

Language bastardization is a major problem—not as bad as the economy—but still a major problem. I can’t count the number of times I have heard a young Latina mother tell me, “Well, I was going to take him a bath.” Many African American patients use so much slang that I have a hard time understanding what they are saying. Noted minority figures who have risen above the fray; such as Collin Powel, Barak Obama, Condolezza Rice, Bill Cosby, and Henry Cisneros; have done so with mastery of the language. Bill Cosby was on the money when he told the NAACP, “I can't even talk the way these people talk. 'Why you ain't, where you is.' ... I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. Then I heard the father talk. This is all in the house.” I have a good surgeon friend who is Nigerian by birth (although educated in the United States). He is appalled at the language skills of African Americans in the United States (especially some of the chosen names). Who would trust a doctor who said, "Well, I is going to give you a prescription”? Who would trust a doctor who said, “Here drink these pills three times a day.” (Spanish does not distinguish between “take” and “drink” so the verb tomar is used for both).

I laughed once while watching a show about the islands off the coast of Scotland. The people who were interviewed had such a Scottish accent that they were very difficult to understand. So, the editors used English subtitles to translate the “English” being spoken by the Scots (which was actually only a thick accent). I have occasionally watched a show on A&E called the “First 48 Hours” that details real life murder investigations. The show is well done and contemporaneously details two murder investigations in two cities. Recently, two things struck me. The victims and suspects are almost always black or latino (this may be because they often shoot the segments in Memphis, Dallas, Miami, Detroit, and Phoenix). Certainly, the crime rate is higher in some minority communities. The other thing that struck me is that when they have African American people on camera, they almost always have to use subtitles. The English is so bad or the accent is so thick that they are hard to understand. Why has this evolved? This is the standard “chicken or the egg” argument. Did the language contribute to the poverty or did the poverty contribute to the language.

Believe me, I am not a racist (but, I will never buy another Dell computer because I will never attempt to get service help from a call center in India from a person named “Bill” with a very thick Indian accent). But, modern society depends on language. If you don’t have the language skills, you’ll never make it. I have chosen to speak two languages (with help from my mother and family). I think speaking more than one language is desired, but an option. Romanticizing the bastardization of language helps no one. So, the schools should not allow this crap to continue. Bilingual education is fine to help the young Spanish-speaking child transition to English. But, after a year or two, all need to speak English. The same holds true for so-called “ghetto-speak” or Ebonics. I would not move to Mexico and try and speak English to the locals. Yet, millions of people mover here and try and maintain Spanish as the language of choice. We Americans are just too gracious sometimes.