57°
UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Dealing with multilingualism in a “salad bowl”

Dealing with multilingualism in a salad bowl

Language is the single most important tool of communication that we as humans have. Language is used in every nation and by every family alike, but it isn’t always as harmonious as it perhaps sounds. Much like a family, a nation is most likely to speak only one language among each other. However, as borders of nations change and people migrate to different countries in search of better lives, a new dominant power is taking over your way of life and jeopardizing the survival of your native tongue.What happens then? Should the new dominant power try and appease the smaller weaker group or just ignore them until they are completely forgotten? There are many questions to ask and answer.My interest in this topic comes from my basic life story. I am Polish and I am fluent in Polish. However, my story of learning my mother tongue is a bit complicated: When I was three years old, my parents moved us to West Germany (illegally). I was young so that I do not really remember the whole learning process. But I did learn it rather quickly and for the most part I fit in pretty good although the “blocks” where we lived were predominantly occupied by Turks and I became friends with many of them. Also, I was occasionally harassed for being Polish and made fun when I spoke it with other Polish kids.When I was 8 years old, my parents decided to move us to the United States. When we received diplomatic refugee visas on our way to Los Angeles, I had absolutely no prior knowledge of the English language. I learned English at school but we lived in Korea town where English was not even the dominant language. Then, we moved to a different neighborhood where 99% of the population was Mexican and almost nobody spoke English.When I was 17, we moved to “Hamtramck”, a neighborhood in Detroit. There, I was finally a part of big Polish community and we all spoke Polish among each other. However, there were many new immigrants from Albania, Serbia, Yemen and Bangladesh. And again, English was usually only used in the classroom and as a common language between the different groups of kids.One way of looking at what I am trying to explain is the family model. The concept of the family represents a country: Most families are more or less homogeneous and monolingual, in the beginning. Then family members marry into different cultures and races which slowly changes the image of the family.This results with having family members who speak different languages. Also some communication is lost because of the lack of understanding each other. The older family members can sometimes feel frustrated and strain the relationships with those in the family who speak a different language than they do. How should this be dealt with? Perhaps some sort of agreement between the two would stabilize relations?What is important to understand is that relations between countries, just like between people, need to be constantly worked on and continuously adjusted in order to be better able to satisfy the needs of all its members. The impact of global migrations and intermixing is reflected in a stark fact: There are now between 7,000 and 8,000 linguistic, ethnic or religious minorities in the world.Let’s go on a world trip to see how other countries are dealing with multilingualism and minority issues.Our first destination is Canada, where the linguistic divide is very strongly evident and limited to two regions: the province of Quebec which has a majority of French speaking citizens and the rest of Canada, which is predominantly English speaking. The people of the western provinces seem not to be interested in what goes on with Quebec and vice versa.The survival of the French language is one of the most important issues for the people of Quebec, and for Canada it is extremely important to keep the nation united and not allow Quebec to leave although they are not willing to use force to stop them.The Canadian goal is not the American style melting pot but instead a mosaic of ethnic groups each retaining their separate identity with pride in its heritage. In 2006, the Canadian house of commons passed a symbolic motion that stated the recognition of Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada.In Canada, the idea of separation is not popular. However, more needs to be done for the population of Quebec to feel more “Canadian”, so that they emphasize the importance of their common history and the values that each holds dearly and perhaps using some common values to bring the two sides closer together.Our second destination is India, which remarkably retains a single nation in the face of having an exaggerated amount of different thriving languages and cultures. Since obtaining its independence just after World War II India has been a solid democracy without much evident struggle to keep the country united in the face of having an extremely linguistically mixed population.The geographic construction of India is made up of twenty eight states and seven union territories, but the linguistic construction of the country is made up of twenty two national languages and another 1,162 languages and dialects.Unlike Canada there are many more than two language groups and thanks to smart political planning the states were drawn up along linguistic lines after independence.The most important thing was to sustain a national identity that would be capable of absorbing all the other ones in a structured manner. Gandhi writes that it is obvious that cultural growth of a people cannot take place except through the medium of their own language.It was decided that Hindi and English would be the two “main” official languages to be used in India, with English mainly for commercial and business reasons and Hindi as the language of the government and the main uniting language so that all Indians can communicate among each other and not be restricted to just the people within their own region.The idea of a shared central society is key to the success that India has been able to achieve and that people from India who travel outside of the country don’t have a problem saying that they are Indian, but instead are happy and proud of it.Our third destination is Switzerland, where the small Alpine nation is often thought of as a model of coexistence among different cultures: Switzerland is divided into federal, cantonal, and communal governments, mainly along linguistic lines, meaning that although there are four national languages in the country each canton only has one dominant language and the others are not really used.However, this model was not there forever: It took somewhere close to 500 years for Switzerland to become what it is today. Switzerland seems to have it figured out as far as harmonious coexistence with a variety of different cultures is concerned.It would seem that if Switzerland can keep people happy with four languages and India with even more then why is it so difficult with some countries?Our final destination is Israel, where Hebrew and Arabic, the two official languages, are not enough for two separate cultures to thrive.There are some reasons to explain this: First, language is more than an instrument, it is a symbol that represents a nation’s spirit. However, the population of Israel is approximately 75% Jewish and 20% Arab. Second, these two groups are in an intractable conflict.For Israel, it will be a lot harder to find a balance that will suffice both conflicting sides than for example in Canada where there isn’t any violent history and no real intractable conflict.Unfortunately, the American style melting pot system would not work in any of these countries. Because the melting pot is an idea for a country of immigrants and their assimilation with mainstream American ideals.Maybe it is better to have a “salad bowl” system where every different culture represents a different part of the salad and they all live together not as a single culture but as many different cultures living side by side in peace and harmony.