Journalist, Political Reporter, Cultural Critic
Fear of Foreign Languages: Why Are Some Americans So Proudly Monolingual?
By Alex Henderson
SeXXXandPolitics.com, February 2012
When Barack Obama was on the campaign trail during the Summer of 2008, he started a controversy without intending to be controversial. Obama, reflecting on the fact that people in parts of Europe are much more likely to speak three or four languages than Americans, recommended that foreign-language study become a much higher priority in the United States. As Obama saw it, American parents would be doing their children an enormous favor by seeing to it that they learned Spanish as a secondary language and studied one or two other foreign languages as well. Obama made it clear that immigrants who wanted to live in the United States needed to learn English as well as they possibly could, but Americans, he said, would ultimately be much better prepared for the workplace if they could speak two, three or even four languages fluently.
Obama asserted: “It's embarrassing: when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German—and then we go over to Europe, and all we can say is merci beaucoup.” And Obama elaborated: “We should understand that our young people, if you have a foreign language, that is a powerful tool to get a job. You are so much more employable. You can be part of international business. So we should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age, because children will actually learn a foreign language easier when they’re five, or six, or seven than when they’re 46 like me.”
Obama made perfect sense. In fact, he was advocating something that conservatives claim to believe in: more skills, more knowledge, more education. But Obama’s detractors didn’t see it that way. From Bill Bennett to the late activist Joey Vento (who owned Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia and was a big supporter of Republican causes) to Bay Buchanan to Americans for Legal Immigration, the radical right immediately went into attack mode and insisted that Obama was bashing Americans. Vento’s comments during a Fox News appearance were especially inflammatory: “This man is a sick man. He is a scary man. I am outraged. I'm really mad.” Fox News’ Sean Hannity called Obama’s comments “insulting,” and Americans for Legal Immigration president William Gheen said, “It is outrageous that a candidate for president would ridicule Americans on this topic.”
Obama was offering Americans career advice and educational advice, but as many Republicans saw it, he was pandering to illegal immigrants and trying to marginalize or even eliminate the English language in the United States (never mind the fact that Obama was quite firm in his assertion that immigrants needed to learn English). However, the attacks on bilingualism from the right neither started nor ended in 2008. From the English-only movement to protests against Arabic and Chinese courses in public schools, there is a widespread belief on the far right that equates being monolingual with patriotism.
Not all conservatives are against foreign-language study; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who has studied Russian, French, German, and Spanish) is very much a proponent of Americans becoming bilingual or trilingual, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks Spanish fluently and has been interviewed in Spanish on Univision (the largest Spanish-language television network in the U.S.). But for some Republicans and Tea Party members, the very existence of foreign languages on U.S. soil—even as secondary languages—is threatening. In South Carolina, for example, Newt Gingrich’s campaign recently ran an anti-Mitt Romney ad that attacked the former Massachusetts governor for, among other things, his ability to speak French. Another Republican, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman (who dropped out of the GOP presidential primary) has been attacked by other Republicans this year for speaking Mandarin.
In 2011, Republicans and Tea Party members in Johnson County, Texas vehemently opposed Arabic-language classes that were planned for a few public schools. Angela Cox, president of the Johnson County Tea Party, said that teaching Arabic in Johnson County schools would be an “atrocity”; Johnson County Republican Party Chairman Henry Teich saw the proposed Arabic studies as part of “a decided effort to suppress the history of our own country” and part of a conspiracy to force Americans “to become Arabic citizens.”
In 2010, plans to offer Mandarin Chinese classes at Cedarlane Middle School in Hacienda Heights, California (a suburb of Los Angeles) were met with opposition from local conservatives. John Kramer, a former school district superintendent, saw Mandarin-language education as “a propaganda machine from the People's Republic of China that has no place anywhere in the United States.”
But this type of xenophobia is nothing new. The English-only movement has been around for many years in the U.S.; during the 19th Century and early 20th Century, English-only activists were fearful of German making inroads and undermining English as the country’s dominant language. Before 1923, more than 20 states in the U.S. had laws prohibiting or restricting the teaching of foreign languages in public and/or private schools. But in 1923, English-only proponents were dealt a major blow when the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Meyer v. Nebraska struck down a Nebraska law that forbade the teaching of foreign languages to students before the 9th Grade (even in private schools). English-only activists of 1923 feared that the High Court’s ruling would marginalize the English language in the U.S., but English remains the country’s de facto language 88 years later. And the English-only movement continues, although its primary target in recent decades hasn’t been German, but Spanish.
The U.S.’ most visible English-only organization is U.S. English, which was founded by the late Republican Sen. S.I. Hayakawa and English-only activist John H. Tanton in 1983 and has been lobbying to make English the country’s official language. Since the mid-1980s, many states have passed laws declaring English to be the official language. But at the federal level, the U.S. does not have an official language—although U.S. English, Americans for Legal Immigration and ProEnglish (which Tanton founded in 1994) would like English to be declared the country’s official language.
The far right’s fear of foreign languages can become downright irrational at times. In 2007, talk radio host Laura Ingraham was furious because Sen. Chris Dodd (a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary) briefly spoke some Spanish to a young Latino man during a CNN debate. During the presidential race of 2004, Republican pundits argued that Democratic candidate John Kerry was untrustworthy because he spoke French as a second language. And some English-only proponents are against any type of advertising in languages other than English. When Republican Steve Lonegan was mayor of Bogota, NJ in 2006, he called for a boycott of McDonald’s because of a Spanish-language McDonald’s billboard in that city. Lonegan (who ran against Chris Christie in a GOP gubernatorial primary in 2008/2009 and is so far to the right that he accused Christie of being too liberal) remains a favorite with New Jersey Tea Party members because of his unsuccessful crusade against that McDonald’s billboard. The Tea Party, in fact, has been full of English-only activism. Ron & Kay Rivoli’s “Press One for English,” a country song that berates immigrants for not speaking English exclusively, has become an anthem at Tea Party gatherings.
Tim Schultz, director of government relations for U.S. English, believes that use of the Spanish language threatens the survival of English in the U.S. and that the “elevation of Spanish to this sort of co-official status” means that Spanish speakers “less and less need to learn English to survive in the United States.” But is the English language really in danger of disappearing in Miami, San Diego and other heavily Hispanic cities as Americans for Legal Immigration, U.S. English, ProEnglish and members of the Tea Party would have us believe? Hardly. In 2006, a study of Southern California-based Latinos conducted by the University of California, Irvine and Princeton University found that only 17% of the third-generation Latinos surveyed could speak Spanish fluently; that number fell to a mere 5% among the fourth-generation Latinos surveyed. In other words, the Tea Party fantasy of third-generation or fourth-generation Latinos who cannot speak any English is exactly that: a fantasy. If 95% of fourth-generation Latinos in Southern California don’t speak Spanish fluently, it’s safe to say that the English-only crowd is paranoid when it claims that English is in danger of ceasing to be the U.S.’ dominant language.
The wrong-headed thinking of English-only activists was exemplified by Vento, who generated some controversy in Philadelphia several years ago when he posted a sign in the window of his fast-food business (which specializes in Philly cheesesteaks) that said: “This is America. When ordering, please speak English.” The inference was that Mexican immigrants in South Philly had no desire to assimilate or learn English when in fact, the vast majority of Mexican business owners in South Philly have no problem addressing non-Latino customers in English; they might converse en español with other Latinos, but they assume that conversations with non-Latinos should be in English.
Vento, who was offended by the Spanish-language signs he saw popping up in parts of South Philly, said that many of today’s Hispanic immigrants aren’t as quick to learn English as the Italian immigrants of the past (Vento was Italian-American). But that is revisionist history. If one visited South Philly 100 years ago, there were plenty of first-generation immigrants from Southern Italy who spoke Italian among themselves and had Italian-language signs in the windows of their businesses. But their children and grandchildren ended up speaking English as their primary language, and the same thing happens with Hispanic immigrants in the 21st Century. Mexicans in South Philly don’t need to be reminded that the U.S. is primarily an English-speaking country; they know that already.
Although some first-generation Latino immigrants speak Spanish among themselves, second-generation Latinos typically grow up speaking English as their primary language—and many third-generation Latinos don’t speak Spanish at all. Linguist Robert Lane Green, author of “You Are What You Speak,” has said that it is a myth that today’s Hispanic immigrants are less inclined to learn English than immigrants of the past, and a 2006 survey by Pew Hispanic Research bears that out; 96% of the Latino immigrants Pew surveyed felt it was “important” for their children to learn English.
Los Angeles-based Mexican-American Marco Gonzales, who serves as a senior communications director for an international company that sells nutritional products and is a former publicist for the Univision Music Group, asserted that English-only proponents needn’t worry about second- or third-generation Latinos failing to speak English; Latinos who are born and raised in the U.S., Gonzales said, typically speak it fluently.
“In the 1950s and 1960s,” Gonzales explained, “Spanish was considered the language of the working poor and the language of the field workers. And all of these Latino kids were told by their parents, ‘You are not going to speak Spanish in this house. You’re going to speak English.’ They did not teach their kids Spanish because they didn’t want them to be discriminated against. That’s what happened with the Chicano culture, and there are so many third-generation, fourth-generation Latinos in this country who are very Latino-looking but do not speak a lick of Spanish.”
The big linguistic challenge for the U.S., according to Gonzales, is not making sure that U.S.-born Latinos learn English—which they inevitably will—it is getting Americans in general, Latino or otherwise, to recognize the importance of being able to speak more than one language. Technology and the Internet, Gonzales said, have made the world a smaller place—and in the future, American workers will be at a major disadvantage if they are monolingual.
“When you look at job opportunities with international companies,” Gonzales noted, “they require bilingual skills. So if it’s an asset, why are some Americans resisting it so much? It just makes no sense to me. Speaking two or more languages is a sign of intelligence. It’s not a weakness. It’s an empowering skill. I don’t condone Latinos coming to the United States and not learning to speak English, but being bilingual is an asset—and being multilingual is a triple asset.”
Gonzales speaks from first-hand experience. Born and raised in L.A., he speaks both English and Spanish fluently (his mother moved to Southern California from Mexico) and also speaks some conversational Italian and Portuguese. And those linguistic skills, Gonzales said, have given him a huge competitive advantage in the job market.
“In my professional life, being bilingual has helped me a lot,” Gonzales stressed. “I always asked for more money when I applied for jobs because I knew that being bilingual was a valuable skill. I knew it was a skill that companies needed. When I got into corporate communications, being able to speak more than one language put me at the front of the line. My language skills have always been my VIP ticket.”
Dr. Catherine Ingold, executive director of the National Foreign Language Center (NFLC) at the University of Maryland, agrees with Obama’s assertion that foreign-language study should become a much higher priority for the U.S.—which, she said, will suffer in the business world if the majority of its residents continue to be monolingual. “One of the things that Barack Obama was pushing, I think, was a more global perspective,” Ingold observed. “Certainly, everything that has happened with globalization proves that he’s right. We can’t be insular and succeed in an era in which you can place an order by e-mail thousands of miles away and get it delivered in a few days. We’re going to need people in our companies who can interact in potential markets with potential business partners in their language. If you have strong language skills, there are going to be really good job opportunities out there.”
NFLC believes that for Americans, intensive foreign-language study should begin as early as grammar school. Ingold said that becoming fluent in foreign languages will not harm Americans’ English-speaking skills—if anything, it might improve them.
“There is a belief that if you know Spanish, French or German, you know less English—which is totally wrong,” Ingold asserted. “Learning a language in addition to your mother tongue enhances your overall cognitive ability. It makes you smarter. It enhances your overall language processing abilities and doesn’t in any way detract from your mother tongue.”
Unfortunately, foreign-language education in the U.S. seems to be decreasing at a time when Americans need it the most. Because of the economic downturn of the late 2000s/early 2010s, foreign-language programs are facing major cutbacks all over the U.S. at the middle school, high school and college levels.
At the University of Nevada at Reno, majors in German and minors in Italian have ceased. At Winona State University in Minnesota, a moratorium has been placed on new majors in French and German. Majors in German are being phased out at Louisiana State University, which is problematic in light of the fact that Germany is Europe’s largest economy. For new students, majors in French, Italian or Russian are no longer offered at New York State University, Albany.
Ideally, American students should begin learning foreign languages from the first grade or even kindergarten. But in 2006, the Center for Applied Linguistics reported that only 24% of public elementary schools in the U.S. offered foreign-language study—and of that 24%, 79% of those grammar school programs were aimed at basic exposure to the language rather than proficiency. So if Americans do achieve proficiency in a foreign language, that seldom happens until middle school. William Gheen’s claim that American elementary school children “are being forced to learn Spanish” and are in danger of receiving insufficient exposure to English has absolutely no basis in fact; the truth is that most elementary schools in the U.S. don’t offer even basic study in a foreign language. And because of budgetary cutbacks, foreign-language study in some places may not even be available until high school. In March 2011, for example, the school district in Burke County, North Carolina announced that all foreign-language programs would be ending in middle schools and that high schools would only offer Spanish and French classes.
There’s nothing unreasonable about expecting immigrants to learn a country’s primary language, which is Obama’s expectation and is what most immigrants do when they come to the United States. But demanding that people be monolingual 24 hours a day is something entirely different, and historically, those who tried to coerce people into being monolingual were dictators with a very nationalistic streak. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, a.k.a. Il Duce, didn’t believe that Italians should speak Italian as their primary language; he believed it should be their only language. Foreign-language newspapers were banned under the Mussolini regime. Similarly, Gen. Francisco Franco, a.k.a. El Generalissimo, believed that anyone living in Spain should speak castellano exclusively and greatly restricted the use of Catalan in public (which is why the street signs in Barcelona were in Spanish during the Franco years, although they were replaced with Catalan signs in Spain’s post-Franco era).
But these days, becoming multilingual is encouraged in many European countries. Fluency in English is now the norm in Holland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Austria, Germany, Belgium and Denmark even though English is not the primary language of any of those countries. The average high school student in Amsterdam has no problem understanding American movies or BBC newscasts and is likely to understand German as well, but all that foreign-language study hasn’t marginalized the Dutch language in the Netherlands—and just as that country sees the value of being multilingual, there is no reason why American schools shouldn’t encourage fluency in Spanish, German and other languages while helping to maintain English as the country’s primary language. But whether or not the U.S. will eventually move in that direction remains to be seen.
“I hope that in the future,” Gonzales said, “more Americans will study other languages and at least try to be bilingual. I hope that changes. I really do.”
Barack Obama was right: fluency in foreign languages is not something that Americans should fear, but something to be embraced and encouraged.
Alex Henderson's work has appeared in AlterNet, the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. He speaks proficient Spanish as well as some Italian and French.
By Alex Henderson
February 24, 2012
2012 marks two milestones for Barbara Nitke. 2012 is the 30th anniversary of her career as an erotic photographer, and it is also the year in which she is planning to publish her new photo book “American Ecstasy.” Looking back on the years Nitke spent documenting New York City’s contributions to vanilla adult films, “American Ecstasy” contains stills of Ron Jeremy, Vanessa del Rio, Nina Hartley, Sharon Kane, Siobhan Hunter, Jeanna Fine, Damien Cashmere, Jerry Butler (not to be confused with the R&B singer/Chicago politician), Sharon Mitchell, Tasha Voux and other well-known porn actors she photographed in the 1980s. Getting “American Ecstasy” published has been a long and difficult battle for the NYC-based Nitke, whose book might have been published several years ago had editor/talk show host Judith Regan not been fired from publishing giant HarperCollins. Regan was not afraid of books that had a porn connection; she had published Jenna Jameson's “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star,” and she was quite serious about publishing “American Ecstasy” as well. But when Regan was fired by the Rupert Murdoch/News Corporation-owned HarperCollins in 2006, Nitke knew she would have to search for another publisher.
“Judith Regan really believed in the book,” Nitke explains. “She was the only one in mainstream publishing who was willing to publish it. Judith has balls galore. I love her. She looked at my pictures and said, ‘Oh my God. This is really art. These are brilliant pictures.’ In my heart, I knew that she got it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a completely mainstream person, and she really understands what I’m doing.’ HarperCollins had all the material, we had the contract, it was all in place—and then Judith got fired, and I really didn’t want HarperCollins to do it without her. With Judith Regan behind it, my book would have been great. But without Judith Regan at HarperCollins, it would have been a disaster.”
Nitke spoke to other mainstream publishing companies after the HarperCollins deal fell through, but even the ones that expressed interest in “American Ecstasy” wanted her to omit the more sexually explicit photos—which wasn’t something Regan wanted her to do and is something Nitke has refused to do.
“Either they wanted us to water it down, or they didn’t want to put out any book that had any type of association with porn,” Nitke notes. “This book is telling the story of a young photographer who was bowled over by all the sex that was going on around her—and if you took the sex out, it wouldn’t be authentic.”
Nitke, now 61, was in her early thirties when her association with the adult entertainment industry started in 1982. That year, she took stills for “The Devil in Miss Jones, Part 2,” a sequel to 1973’s “The Devil in Miss Jones” (one of the most famous porn films of the 1970s). Nitke went on to work as a still photographer on at least 300 more vanilla adult films in the Big Apple, and she has insisted that “American Ecstasy” be an accurate reflection of her work during that period of her career.
Nitke came to the conclusion that the only way to get “American Ecstasy” published without removing the more explicit photos was to publish it herself, and she has turned to Kickstarter.com in order to finance the book. Founded in 2008, Kickstarter is a company that allows Internet users to fund creative projects; the money that donors pledge is collected by Amazon Payments. Kickstarter takes 5% of the funds that are raised, while Amazon takes another 3-5%. Nitke, using Kickstarter, set out to raise $25,000 for “American Ecstasy” before a February 24 deadline; by February 24, she had raised more than $32,000.
Although Nitke has maintained an erotic orientation, she shifted her focus from vanilla hardcore porn to BDSM (bondage, domination, and sadomasochism) in the early 1990s—and her refusal to leave New York City was a major factor in that shift. Nitke didn’t grow up in the Big Apple; she was born in Lynchburg, Virginia (which, ironically, is also the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s home town) and grew up in Virginia and Alaska before moving to NYC. But she loves her adopted home and had no desire to move to Los Angeles when she found American vanilla heterosexual porn becoming increasingly L.A.-centric in the early 1990s.
Los Angeles has been a hotbed of adult film activity since the 1970s; L.A. (especially the San Fernando Valley) has long been considered the adult film capital of the world, and many of the major adult companies that were formed in the 1970s or 1980s are based in Los Angeles (including Vivid Entertainment, Wicked Pictures, Red Light District, Evil Angel Video, Caballero Entertainment and Larry Flynt’s Hustler). But New York City definitely had its share of adult productions during the Golden Age of Porn (roughly the early 1970s through the mid-1980s), and Nitke knew it was time for a change of focus when she saw an abundance of adult talent moving west in the early 1990s.
“In the ‘80s, we New Yorkers prided ourselves on being equal to L.A. in hardcore vanilla porn,” Nitke asserts. “We liked to think we had an equal presence. But really, everybody moved out to California. The girls, for the most part, were being recruited in L.A.; you had your big casting in porn out there. If you were in New York and you were producing porn movies, you had to fly a lot of people in from L.A.—and it made sense for the producers in New York to move out there.”
“The whole vanilla hardcore porn business was moving out to L.A.,” Nitke continues, “and the truth is that I didn’t want to move there. I could have moved out to L.A. and continued to earn a living being a still photographer in that business, but I wanted to stay in New York—and then, the fetish porn thing broke open. My next clients turned out to be Bizarre Video, Gotham Gold, and various small companies around New York that were doing fetish porn.”
Long known for its abundance of BDSM clubs, dungeons, professional dominatrices and gay leathermen, New York City is the home of the Eulenspiegel Society (a BDSM social organization that goes back to 1971) and has one of the most celebrated BDSM communities in the United States. So when Nitke saw more and more vanilla porn talent moving west in the early 1990s and BDSM specialists like Bizarre Video and Gotham Gold started giving her work, she went with the flow; BDSM enabled her to stay in the Big Apple. Shooting stills for BDSM videos and taking photos of BDSM lifestyle couples, she found herself being described as a “fetish photographer.” Nitke’s BDSM-oriented photo book, “Kiss of Fire: A Romantic View of Sadomasochism,” was published in 2003.
Only one of the photos in “American Ecstasy” reflects Nitke’s interest in BDSM: a 1991 photo of a kinky submissive woman named Dusty. “I included that one transitional shot because so much of my work has been SM,” Nitke explains. “I wanted people to see my path from hardcore vanilla porn to SM.”
Much has changed in the adult entertainment industry since Nitke shot her first porn-related stills back in 1982. There was no Internet, adult movies were not being filmed digitally, and male porn stars didn’t have sexual enhancement drugs like Viagra and Cialis to fall back on if they were having sex with someone they weren’t necessarily attracted to. Looking back on all the times she watched adult movies being filmed in Manhattan in the 1980s, Nitke observes: “It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around this one, but they didn’t have Viagra back then. I can only imagine what it was like being a male porn star in those days before Viagra. I remember being on the set thinking, ‘Wow, this is difficult.’”
Nitke elaborates: “When I was in the porn business in the 1980s, guys would go into it thinking, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to pay me to have sex.’ But I could see that after the first year, it became more difficult for them. You had to get an erection, you had to do it on cue, you had to do it with somebody you may or may have been interested in, and you had to do it with a bunch of people watching and going, ‘How long is it going to take this guy? We want to go to lunch.’ I think the pressure of that was enormous. And they were shooting with real film. They would have to cut often to change the film magazine. They would be right in the middle of an orgy, and all of a sudden, they would be running out of film and have to cut. So everybody would have to stop so they could change the film, and then, they would have to go back to where they were before emotionally. Being on those sets, I had enormous respect for everything that the people did.”
One of the New York City residents who isn’t in “American Ecstasy” is the late Andrea True, who was a Golden Age of Porn favorite in the 1970s but retired from erotica not long before Nitke shot her first porn-related stills. True is also remembered for her disco singing (she enjoyed a major disco hit in 1976 with “More, More, More”), and when True’s name is mentioned, Nitke says, “I’m kind of sorry that I didn’t get into the porn business a bit earlier. I came into it at the tail end of the Golden Age of Porn. I got into the porn business as the transition to home video was starting to happen. The people who worked in porn in the ‘70s are so cool to me in a lot of ways. To them, it was more of a sexual freedom thing; at least that was my observation.”
Nonetheless, Nitke found that the 1980s were an exciting time to be in the adult entertainment industry, and she is hoping that “American Ecstasy” will become available to the public sooner rather than later. “It was very cool being a part of porn in the ‘80s,” Nitke recalls. “Everybody hung out. Everybody would tell everybody who would be shooting next. It was a fun time to be working in the porn business, and I make ‘American Ecstasy’ a diary of my own evolution. Being on the set with people who were having sex and getting to take pictures of it was so powerful to me.”
Alex Henderson is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in The L.A. Weekly, AlterNet, Billboard, Spin, XBIZ, Creem, The Pasadena Weekly and a long list of other well-known publications.