Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bilingual Austin

Shortly before arriving in Austin, I came across a book called Handbook of the World, published by Oxford University Press. It had entries for every country in the world, ranging from one to eight pages and giving objective information: government, currency, languages, main industries, recent history et cetera. I was surprised to find the USA listed as a bilingual country. I did know about the masses of people who speak Spanish at home and the whole history of cultural ghettos in America, but seeing it officially acknowledged like that felt a little exaggerated. I no longer feel like that.

It’s not just the bilingual signs and warnings on the buses, but also the countless stores with bilingual billboards – or even billboards just in Spanish – that multiply the further you get from downtown. Even in central areas like Congress Avenue you can find Spanish-language newspapers like Buena Suerte, ¡Ahora Sí! and El Mundo. But of course, the strongest evidence of US bilingualism is the number of actual people speaking Spanish on the streets. Not a day goes by when I don’t walk by someone speaking it on the phone or with a friend.

America has a remarkable history of different cultures pressed together in limited spaces, and Texas is especially significant in its Tejano constituency. The acknowledgement and indulgence of linguistic differences is a testimony of the respectful attitude Americans have developed throughout their (granted, turbulent) history. Perhaps because of the tension from all the wars, territorial disputes and immigration, cultural differences seem to be more obvious in the USA than in other countries.

By comparison, Brazil is much less articulate in its regard for different languages. We do have communities that don’t speak Portuguese – there are Polish and Ukrainian towns in the countryside of Santa Catarina, and many people throughout the South who speak Italian or German at home, in addition to bilingual communities along the borders with Argentina and Uruguay. But the country would never consider itself bilingual. There’s an attitude of adherence to official policy in cultural matters that seems to be absent from the US (and England, too, judging from what I saw there). Brazilian culture has a widespread discourse that Brazilians are all the same, which on one hand makes for a very friendly climate of integration, but also downplays strong and important cultural differences.

Living in Austin certainly gives you the opportunity to rethink your views on cultural differences. After a while, Canada’s bilingual laws and money bills don’t seem so exotic anymore.

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