Strip mall sign in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Photo: Tyler Goss (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Two contrasting articles about bilingualism came my way this morning. In the first one, Los Angeles Times immigration reporter Cindy Chang writes about how the changing geopolitical context is pushing middle class parents to ensure that their kids are bilingual:
Nowadays, with China on the rise, it’s considered borderline criminal for Mandarin speakers not to pass on the language. Even parents who were born here address their children in less-than-perfect Chinese in hopes that some of it will stick. Bilingual mania has taken root among the Tiger Mom set, and not just among Chinese Americans. Many families go to great lengths to make sure their kids are fluent in another language, whether it’s Korean, Spanish, French or Swedish.
Bilingualism is great! Mandarin for everyone! But does this mark a wholesale change in the negative attitudes toward the use of non-dominant languages?
The other story, coming from British Columbia, suggests that speaking a non-dominant language may be okay, but the language will be contested if it comes into the public sphere in visual form. Richmond residents Kerry Starchuk and Ann Merdinyan are complaining that the ratio of Chinese to English on storefront signs in that city is “way out of proportion.”
Starchuk said that if some body, such as city council, doesn’t “get a handle on it” soon, there may come a time when there’ll be no English to be seen.
“If this is our Canadian identity, then it’s not very inclusive, is it?” she said, adding she won’t drive up the north end of No. 3 Road anymore because of the predominantly Chinese signage.
“This is not cultural harmony because I have no idea what these signs, advertising and the real estate papers are saying.
“We value Richmond and we value our Canadian identity and I hope that comes across with our presentation.” (emphasis mine)
Starchuk and Merdinyan are trying to persuade the city council to mandate that two thirds of all signage be in English or French. Considering that the French mother tongue population of Metro Vancouver is quite small, practically speaking this will mean privileging English over other languages.
Conflicts over language on business signs is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon, though the recent “Pastagate” case in Québec highlighted some of the unique, unintended consequences of Canada’s official bilingualism and multiculturalism policies. Two years ago a representative for the heavily-immigrant New York City borough of Queens was pushing for a similar policy in the Big Apple.
What are the implications of monitoring and restricting written language use in public space? I agree with UBC psychologist Andrew Scott Baron, who is quoted in the article above:
“It establishes a status hierarchy. It says that English is the proper language.”
Baron said the policy could do the most harm to young kids, who don’t understand the politics and might receive the message that “to be Canadian means not to speak Chinese.”
This last sentence, I think, is a bit off the mark. Linguistic xenophobes might think that speaking non-dominant languages is perfectly compatible with being American or Canadian. Geopolitical changes might make bilingual speech ability seem necessary for survival. But being able to speak a different language is qualitatively different from using a different language on a sign in public space.
Unlike people, signs can’t code-switch or speak a different language to different people. While speech is ephemeral, signs and written words are fixed and permanent, and that makes them more symbolically potent. They signal, “Hey! We’re here, and we’re here to stay!” in a way that spoken words can never do.