A cure for monolingualism

December 17, 1999

Carlos Fuentes, the 71-year-old literary lion of Mexico, lives, when in Lon- don, in a Kensington apartment that has trebled in value, he says happily, since he bought it a decade ago. A generous coffee table in the living room is stacked with books declaring a roving literary appetite: Jorge Luis Borges, Honore de Baizac and Dostoevsky, Inventing Ireland by Declan Kilberd and The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman. to name a very few. Fuentes reads in French, writes in Spanish and helps out with the English translations of his own nov- els. But the richest literature of the 20th centu- ry, he says unequivocally, is German, a lan- guage he never learned.

Back in the United States, Republicans are running Spanish-language election commer- cials in Iowa, Hollywood is eyeing the Latino market for its movies, and 55 per cent of for- eign-language students in US universities are opting to study Spanish. The Latinisation of the US has been gathering pace for 30 years.

Is it now at some sort of critical mass?

Fuentes answers with a story, from when he gave a lecture at California State Univer- sity in the 1970s. oI was speaking in English, when I realised that the majority of the audi- ence looked very Latin to me,i he says. oI asked, 'Why don't we make life easier for ourselves and speak in Spanish?' There was dead silence." Finally a brave female student raised her hand. Spanish, she said, was the language of slaves. "The language of Cer- vantes, Neruda and Borges," Fuentes says caustically, "was the language of slaves." There used to be a great division, he adds, between the study of the literature of Spain and Portugal, and that of Latin America.

"More and more we are realising that we are part of the same linguistic universe," he says.

"The sooner we pool the great talent in Span- ish on both sides of the Atlantic, the stronger we will be. We have 450 million people who speak Spanish all over the world." The courting of Spanish-speaking voters by presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush, says Fuentes. is a sea change, the realisation that Spanish is the rival language to English in the US. When Mexican presi- dent Ernesto Zedillo visited California earlier this year, he spoke in Spanish to a California legislature that is about 20 per cent Hispanic.

But why, Fuentes asks, do most Americans still speak - and learn - only English? This monolingualism, he says, is othe great para- dox of the US: being the supreme world power and being the most isolated of the powers at the same timei.

The MLA, according to Fuentes, should master its self-doubts and be proud of its mis- sion. "It is the one organisation that brings forth the milieu of foreign literature as a way of interesting and informing the US about the inner realities and the great truths of the world outside the US.

"The knowledge of other cultures makes the United States realise that powerful as it may be, its values are relative. There's an assumption that American values are univer sal values - and it simply isn't true." It is almost 40 years since Fuentes joined the 1960s boom in Latin American writing with his first and perhaps best-known novel, Where the Air is Clear. Other books include The Old Gringo and The Death of Arremio Cruz. An outspoken left-wing critic of his country, essayist and pithy observer of the US- Mexican relationship, he also served as Mexi- co's ambassador to France. Nevertheless, he believes Franz Kafka is the novelist of the 20th century and German the greatest literature.

Greater than Latin American? "Much greater. whoof!" Fuentes answers. If you put Latin American literature next to German or French literature. "you have really a tiny stack of chips compared with a mountaini.

One inspiration for Fuentes's most recent novel, yet to be published in English, is his German great-grandfather, Phillip Boettiger Keller. "He was a Lasalle socialist from Ger- many who gave up on politics because he dis- liked Bismarck so much and went to Mexico and created a coffee plantation. He made a great mistake and prohibited German from being spoken at home.

"I never learned German. I grew up in the second world war: when you heard Hitler ranting, you did not want to learn German."

While Bush and Gore have courted the Lat- ino vote, Fuentes's support goes to the Democ- rat presidential candidate Bill Bradley. Lectur- ing at Montclair State University in the 1980s, Fuentes met Bradley's wife, the academic Ernestine Schiant Bradley, and found they shared a deep admiration for the Austrian novelist and philosopher Hermann Broch, about whom Schlant Bradley has written two books. Fuentes once described the Pilgrim founders of America as othe original wet- backsi, the derogatory term for illegal Mexi- can migrants. The US. he says, is rapidly becoming mestizo, the word used in Mexico for someone of mixed European and Ameri- can Indian ancestry. Maybe, he suggests, a new language will be created; the common term for this mix is Spanglish. but Fuentes prefers Anglonol.

By 2050. he says, three out of every five Americans will speak Spanish. Latin Ameri- can culture will impose itself in a country where Mexican Americans, in particular, feel they are living in a place u at least in Califor- nia and Texas - that once belonged to them.

Fuentes remembers once seeing a sign in Texas that described monolingualism as a cur- able disease. While California in particular has passed laws to make English-only the rule in school, othe question for me is why the US wants to be a monolingual countryi. The US, says Fuentes, is discovering that it has more than one history, not only an Anglo-Saxon one. Maybe the Americans should ... propose that in the US a second language is taught, as tn every public school in Latin America. Let them learn French. Let them learn Italian, let the citizens of the US in the 21st century know more than one language, which means a bet- ter way of understanding the world and deal- ing with its problems."

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