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美国语言

2008-07-24 09:51

  What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? An American.

  To people in many countries, being bilingual or even trilingual is a way of life. But since the mother tongue of most Americans is English-a language widely spoken around the world-they often don''t feel the need to learn a foreign language. Moreover, people who live in the heartland of America have little contact with other linguistic groups, making foreign language skills irrelevant.

  Actually, though, this "land of immigrants" has always had people of many different nationalities-and languages. The 1990 census indicates that almost 14% of Americans speak a non-English language at home. Yet only 3% reported that they spoke English "not well" or "not at all." That means that slightly more than one out of 10 Americans could be considered bilingual. Besides that, many high school and college students-and even some elementary school students-are required to take a foreign language as a part of their curriculum. In addition to old standbys like Spanish, German and French, more and more students are opting for Eastern European and Asian languages. Of course, not all students keep up their foreign language abilities. As the old saying goes, "If you don''t use it, you lose it." But still, a growing number of Americans are coming to appreciate the benefits of being multilingual.

  Ethnic enclaves, found particularly in major metropolitan centers, have preserved the language and culture of American immigrants. Some local residents can function quite well in their native language, without having to bother learning English. Regions such as southern Florida and the Southwest have numerous Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. In fact, Spanish speakers-numbering over 17 million-compose the largest non-English linguistic group in America. But Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Polish and many other ethnic groups add to the linguistic flavor of America. Foreign languages are so commonly used in some ethnic neighborhoods that visitors might think they are in another country!

  Although some Americans welcome this linguistic and cultural diversity, others have begun to fear that the English language is being threatened. Since the 1980s, the "English Only" movement has sought to promote legislation which would establish English as the "official language" and restrict the use of non-English languages. However, some groups, including TESOL, the organization for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, object to such "language restrictionism." Their view, known as "English Plus," suggests that Americans should have respect for people''s native language and culture, while promoting the teaching of English to help them fit into the mainstream of society. But so far, 19 states have passed English Only legislation, and the topic is the focus of an ongoing debate.

  Whether or not English is the official language of the United States, it remains the "language of wider communication." Nearly everyone recognizes the need to develop proficiency in English in order to do well in America. To help those who want to brush up on their English skills, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes abound. Cities with large numbers of recent immigrants often set up bilingual education programs to teach students content subjects in their native language while they improve their English. Language educators often have strong and divergent views as to which approach helps learners achieve better results: a bilingual approach, an ESL approach-or even a pure immersion ("sink orm") approach. However, all these teachers share a common commitment: to help students function well in English.

  Americans recognize that English is the de facto international language, and people with good English skills can get by in many international settings. On the other hand, in a world growing increasingly smaller, second language skills can be a great boon. They can build cross-cultural bridges and give people an edge in a variety of career fields. Indeed, lack of foreign language proficiency can limit one''s chances for advancement-and keep one in a cultural cul-de-sac. As many people in America are discovering, being monolingual is no laughing matter.

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