No Easy Bilingual Street
November 20, 2011
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I leave Montreal and the American Anthropology Association conference today and look forward to dialogues to continue. 2700 World Languages and almost all of them are under threat in some part of the world or another. My paper discussed the “Dorification” of Spanish language programming–the eagerness for the little non-white Spanish girl from her ambiguous nation to share her language and culture with us, effortlessly, lyrically, joyfully. I love Dora! The English media program and books offer the image of a strong feminist transnational & Latina character who celebrates solidarity across difference and an eagerness to get to know other places and beings and conquer “Swiper” (no swiping!), the lone deterrent. She is a catalyst for an interest in other languages and cultures and quite a contrast to the culturally and lingusitically diverse cartoon characters of my youth–Boris and Natasha, Pepe le Piu, Burgermeister Meisterburger–all these characters were enemies and/or buffoons. Dora is neither–she along with her “peers” (Handy Manny, Ni Hao Kai Lan) are hopeful friends who represent easy palatable difference, just a few words here or there in another language, fully translated, repeated several times, no interference in understanding or world view.
The bilingual reality bristles with greater tensions regarding language rights–the right to be understood, the right to understand, the right to have access to more than one language and culture or not. Anthropologists remind me that languages and dialects (and the speakers who speak them) are under threat around the world–Jamaican Creole, Haitian Kreyol, Singapore English speakers (e.g. Singlish speakers), Wampanog and 1000s of indigenous languages that are endangered or extinct, Montreal French. Rarely are tensions about one word or a slight difference in pronunciation (see the Singlish youtube video about cock/coke), more often they are about power, cultural maintenance and survival, identity, fear and love. In 6 minutes my cab arrives to take me away from this bilingual city, rich in struggle and examples of bilingual survival. May the conversations begun continue until we find ourselves code-switching in hybrid genres, where the norm is to move through multiple codes and Codes, where we can remember Dora as a fond but distant memory of a time that was.