Monolingualism as a badge of pride? A view of America from Hong Kong

Monolingualism and the American bigot

A comic inspired by recent traffic on my Facebook feed from American relatives.

I saw the following sign at a Hong Kong public transportation interchange today. The sign includes three linguistic versions of “first class.” The sign can be read by Hongkongers/Taiwanese/Singaporeans (頭等), Mainland Chinese (头等) and English speakers.

Trilingual sign on Hong Kong's East Rail Line

Trilingual sign on Hong Kong’s East Rail Line

Hong Kong maintains a “biliterate and trilingual” policy, meaning that Chinese and English are both official written languages and that Cantonese, Mandarin and English are the territory’s main spoken languages (see more here). Government websites and forms are written in Chinese and English. Announcements on the MTR (subway) are in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.

Because of Hong Kong’s policy, I have the chance to hear all sorts of public service announcements on local media. Through these announcements I have learned that:

  • Scattering of cremated ashes in designated Gardens of Remembrance is free of charge and promoted by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (as Hong Kong is rather tight on burial space). I am a proponent of cremation and yet, the word “food” following so closely after the mention of human remains gives me a start every time.
  • “Our hands are important” and thus we should take special care to keep them clean. Especially during this winter’s avian flu scare.
  • “We” should check our drains regularly during the rainy season.

Does it hurt anyone to see a trilingual sign, read a bilingual government form or listen to a PSA in a language they understand? I can’t imagine an instance when it does.

And yet, there is a small group of Americans who are dead-set against the use of any language other than English. For example, this quote was shared on my Facebook feed by several relatives from Utah:

“I will not be forced to learn a foreign language to accommodate illegals in my country.”

Because I’m too passive-aggressive to write a response on Facebook, I’ll rebut the nonsense here (in preparation for an in-person rebuttal after I’ve had a few drinks during this summer’s “home leave”).

“forced to learn” I see no evidence that anyone is being forced to learn Spanish. Do you work at the New Mexico Department of Licensing? Then you might be able to do your job better if you speak Spanish. But that’s skill tied to a particular job like any other. Learning a second language, like learning MS Access, can be frustrating and mildly painful, but is not permanently harmful and can be useful on a CV.

“foreign language” While English is the most commonly spoken language in America, there is no official language at the national level. After English, the second most commonly spoken language is Spanish, with 35 million residents speaking it as their primary language at home. (For more information on the topic of languages in the US, see this Wikipedia article.)

“accommodate” What is the problem with accommodating? There are many stores in the southwestern US with window signs reading “Se Habla Español.” It means that they have a staff member who speaks Spanish. They do it because it’s good for business. Similarly, when taxes are collected (using government produced forms) isn’t it helpful if those paying taxes can read the forms? I speak some Chinese and am always working to learn more, but I could not fill out a tax form that was only in Chinese.

“illegals” Assuming that all (or even a majority) of Spanish-speakers are illegally in America is bullshit (see here).

So what are we left with?

Bigotry and fear.

(Thanks to Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” young reader book series for the T-shirt quote in my comic: “Reading might offend you. Why take the chance?“)

17 responses to “Monolingualism as a badge of pride? A view of America from Hong Kong

  1. The world is changing very rapidly and those who have never travelled or don’t travel regularly are having a hard time catching up. The fortress mentality of them and us can no longer be sustained, it is just we. Like you, I have problems discussing this with friends and relatives who still don’t get it. Sometimes I’m patient and enter into debate, but sometimes I just throw a blanket over my head in despair.

    • I know you are Canadian, but I find it so hard to talk to people who have an almost religious-like belief in “American Exceptionalism” but who seem to be willing to do so little to personally promote its “exceptionalism” other than through fear-mongering and wall-building. Where’s that blanket?!

  2. I have only personally heard the same remarks twice in my life. The most recent one was just a couple of months ago. The first one was in the 1980s when I was back in the UK: “I’m not learning a foreign language because I don’t like them [foreigners].” At least that UK person was honest about it. I don’t know how fluent you are in Cantonese, but I hear a lot of Hong Kong Chinese have very similar remarks about learning English, I’m sorry to say.

    • I suppose it’s fair enough for a person to say they don’t want to learn a foreign language. But for them to wear it as a sort of badge of nationalistic pride is certainly maddening! (Whether as an American, Hongkonger or Brit)

      • Exactly. What is surprising (to me at least) isn’t having to face that attitude out of some nationalistic pride from some person from some country, but to ‘experience’ it in a place like Hong Kong, of all places. I truly feel embarrassed by that.

  3. Learning a any language may not be harmful, but irritating, sure. Irritating in the sense that, riding on public transit will never be the same…

    In other news, there’s a hint of a whimsy of a chance I’ll be in HK at some point in the next 1-3 months. Chungking, or if not, not Chungking?

  4. On the heels of your future Chungking Mansions experiment, decades ago in Vancouver, BC, there was a big stink about a Sikh Royal Canadian Mounted Police who wanted (needed) to wear his turban everyday even when in uniform. After initial outrage, he was finally allowed to wear his turban on the job. To me, this is just the result of our changing society – that immigrants will move to predominately-English-speaking countries and enrich them with their own cultures and languages.

    • My God, Vancouver must have been a completely different kind of place to have once made a fuss over a turban. Doesn’t half of Hong Kong and half of Bangalore live there half of the year now?

      And this is such a great point about immigration keeping things vibrant.

  5. Couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you for bringing up this important observation. I think that American Exceptionalism (especially in an entrepot like Hong Kong) is pretty rare since most Americans living abroad realize the many pros and cons to the US given a broader view and experience. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of Americans back in the US, I hear traces of it everywhere. Reminds me of these 2 links below as to how and why America might be overrated. Historically, we are in the era of Pax Americana, but there is such a thing as imperial overstretch. We just have to look at the decline of the British Empire to see where the US is headed. And of course, I will be labeled “unpatriotic” or “un-American” for saying these things (especially these days!) but in my own way, I am concerned and I do love my country.

    And this clip from The Newsroom if you haven’t already seen it:

    • Thank you so much for sharing these two links Angela. Very interesting and I hadn’t seen either of them. The Newsroom clip really hits the nail on the head.

      An interesting side benefit of the decline of the British Empire is how rich post-WWII humor and music became in Britain. If we Americans could learn to take ourselves less seriously, perhaps America’s second act could similarly include a golden age of humor/music/culture. Silver lining?

  6. Funny how I see similar trends emerging in mainland china where visitors are expected to learn manadrin because the PRC chinese simply refused to learn English or even Cantonese because their thinking their country is the best of the world mentality (“PRC Chinese Exceptionalism”.) This mentality is very noticeable in PRC mainland chinese simply refused to learn Cantonese when in Hong Kong nor adopt better manners.

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