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    Amritas has a sensible post on how far emergency service providers should go to accommodate people who can’t speak English. There’s a fire department in Georgia (the state, not the former Soviet republic) that’s supplying its personnel with certain useful phrases in the native languages of many area immigrants:

    I’m usually opposed to multiculturalism, but I don’t see anything wrong with a few phrases (mispronounced, alas) that could save lives. I’d treat emergencies like these as exceptional.  Immigrants to the US should learn English, but should people die just because they got off the plane yesterday and can’t answer the firefighters’ questions?

    The problem is … what counts as an emergency?  Here’s my take: Fires are split-second situations.  Most other situations aren’t. So I don’t believe in multilingual ballots.  You won’t die if you don’t vote.  Multilingual welfare?  You want our (tax) money, you learn our language.  But what about medical emergencies?  Your every ache and pain tended to in Whateverese? You want that, you pay for it.

    Ah, that brings a soft libertarian-flavored solution to mind: public emergency services are in English only – the language of the majority of taxpayers – but one can pay for private emergency services in the language of one’s choice, just as one can pay for Whateverese-speaking doctors, lawyers, etc. (Hard libertarians would of course argue that all services, emergency or not, should be privatized because the government is eeeevil.) So in this scenario, a small, poor community of Whateverese speakers who can’t afford private emergency services (which aren’t in Whateverese, because there’s no money in it), would have to (gasp) learn English or die.

    Does that sound depressing?  It’s not much worse than what linguistic minorities face in parts of the world which haven’t sipped any mooltee-kooltee Kool-Aid yet.  If you are an Iranian in Japan, do you think a 消防士 shouboushi extinguish-prevent-person’ will deign to speak to you in فارسی Persian?

    Another consideration is that, even if dispatchers and firemen have memorized a few useful questions, will they understand when the person they’re talking to says, “My daughter’s still in her bedroom–northeast corner of the fourth floor–and she has asthma!”? Ideally, some able-bodied and civic-minded members of the various immigrant communities would be moved to serve as emergency and law-enforcement personnel. Or, at least, some bilingual community leaders would agree to be on-call if they were needed in such an emergency. Those who emigrate to the States as teenagers usually become fluent in English pretty rapidly, even if they retain an accent.

    3 Responses to “Multi-lingualism”

    1. John says:

      Funny you should mention the accent. There is a dividing line at about 13 – 14 years old. I don’t know if that has to do with the fact that kids that age go through the full 4 years of High School in America, or if the ear turns tone deaf in a lot of kids at that age, but kids who emigrate before then usually don’t have an accent. Of course, those who live in Chinatown or some such may still have an accent, if their common milieu is not American.

      I know a couple of Chinese who fall between ABC and FOB – they emigrated at about 11 or 12. No accents at all, but sometimes they’ll write down an idiom completely wrong because they’ve never seen it written before (I want to write a book on this called “A Slow Pole Learns by Rope”), or they will make a non-native mistake (mixing “he” and “she” is common for Chinese, the pronouns are homonyms in Mandarin).

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Could it be morphological, too? As you know, I’m not trained in medicine, but, I mean, your bones stop growing entirely when you’re around 30, right? Does training your tongue and palate get harder when you’re in your mid-teens? I started studying Japanese when I was 19, and while people always tell me I have no accent (which makes my usage and grammatical errors all the more hilarious, apparently), it was a pain to learn. The muscle control is completely different from that used in American English: the tongue and palate are more taut, but the lips are more slack.

    3. John says:

      I dunno about that – I think it’s more muscle memory than morphological – those areas are pretty maleable, but twenty years of constatn use in a perticular patter will probably strengthen some muscles and tendons at the expense of others. Personally, I think it’s more software than hardware.

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