ProEnglish: defending America against immigrant languages…

A lot of heated issues always surround a typical election, abortion, gay marriage, healthcare, the economy, etc etc…. the list goes on but one issue I’ve never encountered is “Language”.

2008-09-05_0959Earlier today I encountered the ad at right on a blog, which would take you here if you were to click it.

In a nutshell the people behind this are looking to pass laws that reinforce English as the official language of the United States and also repeal laws/guidelines (i.e. Executive Order 13166) aimed at trying to expand translation of information materials by state & municipal governments. At the end of the day they’re paranoid that all the immigrants are just going to stick to their mother tongue and never bother to learn English.

Which of course will equal the death of English as a language in the United States. Right? I’m not so sure… Obama dared to suggest that people learn Spanish which is why his picture is in the ad (interestingly enough an idea they don’t disagree with – they actually agree it’s good to learn other languages). Basically their big demand is make English the official language of the US because that will fix everything.

At the end up the day there’s some kernel of truth to the concern. But it’s not about the “death” of English. Rather it’s how the culture of a city/community develops.

Language is just about the biggest barrier to integration in a community. I can disagree with your politics, your religion, even your haircut, but chances are we can find common ground somewhere. But if we can’t communicate easily or effectively the chances of us becoming friendly or even neighbourly diminishes greatly. Eventually pockets develop where people of similar cultures congregate and that’s where integration slows and instead communities close ranks on each other.
The reality though, I think, is the concern about the fragmentation over languages is somewhat self limiting, and it would never get the momentun needed where English would stop being the common language of the United States.
Why? The education system. So long as the education system stays in the common or official language(s) of the country, and attendance by school age children is mandatory,  then there is already some mandated English education.
Yes, some of the older immigrants will likely never learn the local common language – admittedly picking up a language later in life is much more difficult. And my guess, these people not learning the language has zero to little effect on the people up in arms about it. The children of these immigrants however? they will end up learning the common language of the country they’re in. I use the term self-limiting because for the ProEnglish movement’s worst nightmare to come true the US would basically have to open the floodgates of immigration so that Adult immigrants who don’t speak English would grow to rival the number of existing adults in America who speak English… likely not going to happen.
It’s certainly a narrow line to walk and it harkens back to a post I did  a couple of years ago (“Your culture vs. “Our Culture“) wondering where it’s appropriate to draw the line between acceptance of an individual’s culture or beliefs over the perceived culture of a nation. As a country grows and the makeup of it’s population changes, becomes more diverse how much energy should be put into preserving the previous culture versus accepting and encouraging the evolution of the present day culture.
There is of course, no answer to this dilema but it’s an interesting question to keep in mind as you look at how you interact (or don’t) with diverse communities from day-to-day.
For me, I feel strongly that people should be open to learning as many languages as they can, regardless of whether you already speak the local language. At the very least when travelling try to learn at least a few of the “common courtesy” words (please, thank you, excuse me, 1 beer please, etc.) for the region they’re in.
If you’re moving to a new country I think it’s great to learn the local language(s), not just so you can communicate but so you can fully experience the benefits and culture of your new home. When I encounter someone in downtown Toronto who can’t speak English I don’t curse them for not integrating but there are times where I know I’ve missed opportunities to probably have an interesting conversation and learn something.
Language is a two-way street, the ProEnglish folks could probably learn a thing or two by picking up a new language and getting to know the people they fear – I’m sure they’re quite nice.

Move over America…

… China is about to become the largest online population. Between the end of 2006 and the end of 2007 China added roughly 73 Million users to the Internet.


To put it in perspective – even if Canada doubled it’s population and put an internet connection in the house of every man, woman and child in the country. We’d still come up about 7 Million people short.

On the flip side though there’s two factors at work here. China’s population is roughly 1.3 Billion right now which means a total user base of 210 Million is only a 16% penetration rate. In Canada we have a ~65% penetration and the US has ~71%.

India will no doubt pick up steam in the coming and will definitely rank in the number 2, if not number 1 spot.

So what does this mean for the Internet in general?

The connected world’s borders are no longer geographical – they’re lingual.

The world may be flattening, but there’s still a a few big walls running across the landscape. The reality is the “hidden web” is going to keep growing. As I’ve posted about before, your ability to access information online revolves almost exclusively around the languages you can read/write.

As countries like China & India continue to pump new users online more and more content will be generated in their native languages, likely invisible to you unless you speak (and search in) that language.

Google’s getting better and better with opening access to these sites through their machine translation tools but the reality is there just isn’t enough CPU horsepower to run every Google search through machine translation for all the different language variations.

Language Weaver, through Kontrib, is also making an interesting attempt at opening up more content to a broader audience through a Digg like portal. It’s a great idea although I think they’re going to have a hard time getting the traction it needs. I’d personally love to see them work with Digg directly instead and create a licensing deal similar to what my friends at Idee have done with their image duplication detection technology.

It’s going to be interesting to watch this story play out. Who ever busts the language barrier the mos effectively first will dramatically change the search game. Google is clearly out in front, and the most likely victor, but you never know who’s running in stealth right now and could surprise us all.

Innovative Language "Switch" via CSS…

Found this tid-bit in 37 Signals “Screens Around Town” post has created a really cool method for switching between two languages on this page. Both languages are displayed, in the case of the first screenshot the English is in focus and the Czech is in the sidebar:


But if you click on the sidebar the focus switches to the Czech language version:


Very cool… See it in action here

Both screen captures: 37Signals Blog

If this kid can run his business in half a dozen languages…

… why can’t you?

This video is an interesting example of the challenges I have with statements like “take your business global” etc. – Here’s a kid, grinding away in a third world country, trying to sell his peacock fans. Like it or not, he’s running a “global business” but he never leaves his own border (in fact he probably never leaves the same neighborhood).

It’s a great reminder that translation/localization doesn’t neccessarily mean doing business in another country. This kid recognized the need and adapted his marketing “messaging” – Sure his delivery of each language isn’t perfect, but he also isn’t trying to sell you a big ticket item – to some it’ll be a novelty, to others he’ll be the one kid not yabbering on at you in a completely foreign language. I’m guessing he does pretty well…

As my friend Will Pate put it in his post (where I found this video) – “This kid is the future”.