Friday, February 4, 2011

A multi-lingual society?

This morning's Indianapolis Star carried a commendable editorial, criticizing House Bill 1255, an "English-only" bill that would ostensibly "ban state documents, public meetings and public employees from using a second language." You can read it here.

It reminded me that the other day I was using the ATM outside the Broad Ripple branch of the Huntington Bank where I do my banking, where I was struck to realize that the screen offered me THREE choices of language: English, Espanol, and Somali. Somali?

My first reaction was bemusement and curiosity. Surely, Somali is not the second most common foreign language in Indianapolis, Indiana. But it has to be a good thing; what's the point of living in a major city if it isn't diverse and cosmopolitan? It didn't occur to me to be offended.

I went home and did a little internet research. Huntington's website (tagline: "We Speak Your Language & Share Your Values. A Bank Like No Other") did not have any reference to why they've elevated this rather obscure African language to "Big Three" status.

A Google search did turn up some two-year-old news articles that were informative, though. Apparently there is a sizable Somalian population in Columbus, OH (where Huntington is headquartered) -- as many as 45,000. Why Columbus, I don't know; any more than I know why Fort Wayne attracted America's largest Macedonian population in the 1920s.

Of course these days, when we hear the word "Somalian," the first thing that comes to mind is "pirates." And we haven't heard as much about Somalian pirates in the last two years, not since a small group of them made the mistake of hijacking an American ship, and the American President with the African last name responded to his first foreign policy crisis by authorizing the (highly effective) use of deadly force in response.

But Somalian pirates are a by-product of the 20-year civil war in that country where we were once engaged, in one of those well-intended humanitarian missions that became a military one. And many of the Somalians in America today are refugees from that war. The ones who make it to America -- legally, in most cases -- are the lucky ones. Many of them, apparently, live frugally here so they can send money to relatives still struggling to survive in refugee camps in Kenya.

Of course, just about 100% of Somalians are black, and just about that high a percentage of them are Muslim. So I didn't have to follow too many links on Google to start finding newspaper articles followed by angry, hostile posts in those infernal "comments" sections. One such article, from late 2009, was about a different Ohio-based bank that had announced it would no longer facilitate wire transfers to Somalian refugees in Kenya, for fear that some of those funds were filtering to Islamic terrorists. The Executive Director of the Somali-American Chamber of Commerce was quoted as saying that this amounted to a death sentence his constituents' relatives in Africa. The comments section was predictably unsympathetic.

I thought about all of this again this morning while reading the Star editorial on our legislators' efforts to ban Spanish (let alone Somali!) from our public documents and websites and conversations.

So I stopped in my bank branch and asked the friendly faces (two of them, in fact, are Hispanic) behind the counter what they knew about the Somali language option on the ATM. The first person I talked to was aware of it but didn't know the specifics; a second employee offered that, because Huntington was headquartered in Columbus, the bank was simply making a conscious effort to capture that growing population as customers ... and all Huntington ATMs nationwide use the same interface. So ... probably not a humanitarian gesture; probably not a response to a leftist federal edict to pollute our English body politic with some foreign language ... just good old American capitalism at work. Good for Huntington Bank.

Of course, I remember when bank ATMs and answering machines at private businesses first began offering Spanish-language options over ten years ago, there was some public push-back among the talk-radio set. But those businesses weren't being politically correct -- they were responding to changes in the marketplace, and trying to capture market share, not punishing prospective customers for being alien.

I'm afraid that politicians are pandering to a minority on this issue. Worse, they are working against the tide of history, and against our future.

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