Ignorant politics – Rep. King and Chinese

Rep. Steve King of Iowa has sponsored an English-only bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s a dumb bill with unstated pernicious goals of racism and exclusion, but leave that aside for the moment. Rep. King said, “A common language is the most powerful unifying force known throughout history, throughout all humanity and all time. If (people) can’t communicate, they’re bound to separate.” The people in India, China, many African nations, the Quechua-Spanish nations of South America, Indonesia, and numerous other countries which have multiple languages might disagree on that statement. It is, at the very least, not a statement based on fact.  Language differences might sow disunity, as Rep. King is doing in the U.S., but these nations have not been “bound to separate.” (The U.S. came close to separation without any linguistic involvement except perhaps the stigmatizing of peoples’ accents.)

More disturbing than that statement was his use of China as an example of linguistic unity “throughout history.” His report on the history of the “Chinese language” is riddled with the sorts of logical fallacies which result from not knowing what you are talking about. First of all, there is no language called “Chinese.” A person from Beijing cannot easily understand someone from Canton, Taiwan, or even Szechuan. There are also many tribal languages spoken in China. My Chinese friends tell me that the variances between, say, Beijing Mandarin and the languages spoken elsewhere are much greater than the languages of Texas and New York. In America, it is a matter of accent, but the differences are more pervasive in China. Any broad brush analogy between China and America, and ancient China with modern America, is bound to be fallacious. One has to be careful when comparing even England with America.

The Chinese alphabet is indeed a cleverly devised unifying tool unlike anything we have in the Western world. It is perhaps analogous to the sign language which Native America tribes used to communicate, since they could not understand each others’ languages. In our Western alphabets, a person must memorize the words house, casa, maison, spiti, and so on, in order to communicate the idea of “house” or “home.” Two Chinese citizens who cannot understand each other verbally can communicate through the symbol for house. The Google translation for “house” contains multiple entries, but one of them is A Frenchman and an American can say to each other over and over again “House,” “Maison” “House” “Maison” and never understand each other, but two Chinese can write down and communicate immediately.

I once asked several Chinese students to come to the board and write the symbols for various words. The rest of the Chinese students in the class enjoyed the display even more than the rest of us. The Taiwanese student used an extra slash or line to write her symbols, and the Beijing student had a different slant or a different interior relationship of strokes. They said in explanation that the Taiwanese student wrote with an “accent.” They could detect where the student was from by analyzing the symbolic depiction of certain concepts. This is an entertainment which no Western student could participate in. Writing “maison” instead of “house” does not provide any laughs at all.

I was amused by Rep. King’s turning to China as a template for the U.S. to follow. There are few Republicans indeed who would use a Communist government which dictates policy, including language policy, as our model.

Our ignorance of things Chinese is so great that politicians can grab onto fragments of truth and include them in their speeches unchallenged, because neither they nor their audiences know what the truth is. I stipulate right here that my knowledge of Chinese is very limited, but compared to Rep. King, I’m an encyclopedia.

So who has the upper hand in the world today? The Chinese or the Americans? I recently met Yen, a young Chinese woman who is beginning high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She will be living with 15 other young Chinese students. (They will soften the transition to the U.S. by employing a Taiwanese chef to cook their meals. It is very difficult for a Chinese person to become accustomed to the American kitchen.) She already speaks good English and, if the family plan is accomplished, will finish both high school and college in the U.S.  There are tens of thousands of Chinese students like Yen studying in the U.S. today, and each will take back to China a bit of knowledge to share with their families, acquaintances, and colleagues.  We, in the meantime, are entertaining each other with false stories about Chinese history and language, without the slightest clue what China is like.

One of my students once wrote an essay in which she claimed that if we limited the ability of ordinary citizens to purchase guns we would be “just like China.” I had no idea what being “just like China” would entail, so I asked her in what ways they would be similar. “Do you know a lot about China?” I asked her. She sheepishly cast her eyes down. She barely knew where it was. Such foolish bromides about gun control had become second nature in her family and her community (she was home schooled), and had the ring of truth to them. As my father remarked about one family’s annual reunions, “They get together once a year to increase their ignorance.”

We live awash in such ignorance at our peril.


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