Thursday, February 8, 2018

Language Controversy Now and Then

What's with the foreign language signs?


A Korean-American attorney advertises his services in 2018.

I took this photo a year or so ago in Fort Lee, NJ. It's an advertisement for a Korean law firm, the kind of advertisement that angers a lot of native-born Americans. Why? Because it's written in a foreign language. Some years ago, such signs prompted controversy in the neighboring town of Palisades Park. In the past thirty years, "Pal Park" demographics have changed remarkably. Once overwhelmingly Italian-American, it is now majority Korean-American. The transition is particularly evident on the facades of the shops along Broad Avenue, the town's main thoroughfare. Some years ago, longtime residents claimed to be offended by commercial signage that they could not read. They saw the Korean language signs as unsightly and un-American. "Our grandparents would never have done this. They came here and learned English," was the consensus among them.

Of course, immigrants have been advertising in their own languages from colonial times. Ben Franklin complained about German signs in 1750's Philadelphia. In light of the debate between Italian-Americans and Korean-Americans in Palisades Park, I found the photo below ironic. It depicts storefronts in Little Italy during the so-called Great Wave of immigration (1880-1930), the period when those grandparents came. Look closely. There is not a word of English to be seen. For me, this photo conveys the old adage, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

Italian-American Shops along Mulberry Street, Manhattan, c. 1910. Note that
none of the messages in shop windows are in English.
My own preference in signage is that written messages be conveyed bilingually, but this wouldn't make much sense for a billboard highlighting the immigration law services of a Korean-speaking attorney, would it? In any case, if America maintains its historic role as a graveyard for immigrant languages, Pal Park storefronts may revert to English in another generation or so. It's much more common to hear young Koreans speaking English than their parental tongue. 

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