All through junior high and high school, one of my good friends was a classmate who had emigrated from Sweden with her parents when she was 5. Like many immigrants, she lived in a world divided by two languages. At school, she spoke perfect English. At home, she and her parents reverted to Swedish - a practice she and her mother continue even now.
To those of us in her circle of friends, listening to her family's conversations in Swedish offered a window on another world. As she shifted between two languages, we realized that her bilingual status gave her a perspective far broader than our insular Midwestern backgrounds.
It is a long way - in years, in miles, in culture - from my friend's Swedish-American household in northern Illinois to the African-American homes of students in Oakland, Calif., whose use of black English has put them at the center of an international controversy. But ever since the Oakland school board decided last month to recognize ebonics as a separate language, I've been thinking about my friend's linguistic dual citizenship - and about the millions of other families clinging to the comforting familiarity and dignity of their native language and cultural heritage while yearning to find a place in the prevailing culture around them.
The parallels are not exact, of course. My friend never spoke Swedish outside her home and knew that success in her adopted country depended on mastering standard English. Yet as the number of people like her who are straddling two cultures grows, the Oakland decision raises issues that go beyond one city and one minority group. Even readers of The Times of London are now debating the subject in the paper's letters column.
Opponents of the Oakland plan to legitimize ebonics make a valid case that the three R's cannot be reduced to Readin', Ritin', and Rappin'. It's hard to be a full member of a community if you can't speak the correct language - in this case, standard English, the language of education, business, and government.
At the same time, the ebonics debate could help to broaden sympathies for everybody whose dialect or speech doesn't conform to standard English. When any group's language is ridiculed, it's a pointed way of telling them: You don't belong.
That linguistic exclusion is on the increase in the United States. In recent years, 23 states have passed laws declaring English to be the official language. This year the Supreme Court will review an Arizona law requiring state employees to conduct government business in English. And in the wake of the Oakland case, a freshman state representative in Massachusetts has just filed a bill to prohibit teaching or using ebonics in public schools.
Are these measures intelligent - or insular? Opinions are bound to clash as languages and cultures in the US increase.
The US attitude has typically been that one language is enough. We resist language requirements in school. And because English has become an international language, we expect the rest of the world to converse with us - en Anglais, s'il vous plat.
Still, few things increase tolerance or empathy more than learning a language - or learning about one. To begin to understand other cultures, whether inner-city Oakland or pastoral Sweden, broadens appreciation of another people's point of view. The mind becomes a traveler.
However the ebonics debate is resolved, it serves as the latest symbol of the power of language to unite or divide. With some 5,000 languages in the world, the Tower of Babel - the threat of an anarchy of tongues - is as present a danger as the provincialism that comes from feeling one's native language is the only true one. Somewhere between these two extremes lies the elusive ideal - a sharing of words leading to a sharing of hearts and minds. In a world filled with misunderstanding, there's no choice but to keep on talking, quietly and persistently, as if civilization depends on it. It does.