Friday, July 9, 2010

PIBBA US Embassy Speech

You can view the US Embassy Speech given at the 29th Annual International PIBBA Conference below or by visiting the URL:

Pacific Islands Bicultural Bilingual Closing Speech
MIHS June 25, 2010

Welcome to dignitaries, government officials and delegates. I am honored and delighted to speak to you all here at this meeting of the Pacific Islands Bilingual-Bicultural Association. As a proud American, I can tell you that my country—my culture—has a unique way of accepting and incorporating newcomers and their cultures. We are not a bicultural country. We are a multicultural country evolving into something uniquely American. We call it a “melting pot.” We accept people of different backgrounds and creeds and the country adapts to form something new. We envelop this newness and it becomes a part of our collective consciousness. A taste of food in the United States will show you what I mean. We may call something “Mexican food” or “Chinese food” or even “Pacific cuisine,” when we are being fancy, but usually the food has a distinctive, non-native quality that can only be described as American. I’ll return in a bit to the topic of food and its influence on cultures.

I have to be honest about an unfortunate practice sometimes in my culture. Once immigrants to the United States jump into the melting pot, the ability to speak their native languages sometimes disappears. One example--in preparing for this meeting, I was talking to my Deputy at the Embassy about bilingualism. He explained that his grandparents immigrated to the United States, running from Eastern Europe to avoid the Holocaust. Though they didn’t have much in the way of a formal education, his grandparents each spoke six different languages once they added English to their mix of Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, and German. But to make their kids, including his mother, American, they spoke only English around the house, except when worshipping or when they wanted to keep something secret from the kids. Because of this phenomenon, his mother speaks only English. This focus on monolingualism exacerbates Americans’ lack of ability at languages and hinders our understanding beyond our borders. In fact, Americans who embrace the American culture while at the same time retaining knowledge and appreciation of their native languages and cultures actually strengthen the American experience, so the theme you have chosen, “Reviving the Languages and Cultures of the Pacific,” is relevant to all Americans, as well as Pacific Islanders.

In my career as a diplomat, I’ve seen the best of Americans at work trying to learn languages, understand and accept other cultures and help others understand ours, as well. I recognize the strong ties that language and culture have with history, development, economics, and health. As an independent observer--I first lived here in the RMI right after independence and have now been back for nearly a year--I have seen clearly the critical need for bilingualism and biculturalism for the people of the Pacific and the successes earned by those who are able to embrace and practice more than one language and culture.

The common denominator for those successes, in every case, rests in a solid basic education. The United States believes that educated people will choose freedom; free people will choose democracy; and democracies will choose peace. This philosophy encapsulates United States foreign policy. Those who receive a solid education and take advantage of it, are generally happier, more productive, and more successful in life. For a nation, a reliable educational system is the only way to generate growth and energy for innovation for the future.

The language of Marshallese is a strong and thriving language, but it is spoken in a small pocket of the Pacific, among a small population. For this country and the other islands of the Pacific to prosper and thrive, many more citizens need more than a passing knowledge of a world language, which, in this part of the world, is English. The curriculum for all schools needs to be taught in English, starting with kindergarten, when young minds can absorb a new language most readily. Teachers, therefore, need to be competent to teach in English before they can effectively educate the citizens of the future. Without ignoring or forgetting the cultural and historical significance of the languages of the Pacific Islands, the fact remains that English is critical for all students in this region, those who are pursuing academic advancement and those who are seeking to gain practical life and work skills.

A problem faced by smaller nations, such as the Pacific Island countries, is how to blend the rightful desire to hold onto their unique histories and cultures and a need to embrace modernity. As I reiterated recently in a public forum here in the Marshall Islands, under the Compact of Free Association, the direct funding, which provides a large portion of the government budget, ends in 2023. Many Pacific Island nations face similar deadlines or limitations. These islands and countries have to strike the delicate balance of encouraging their distinctive economies, establishing acceptable tax laws, encouraging private sector development and developing their own version of democracy that satisfies their political and economic needs while retaining their individuality.

I have not forgotten that languages and cultures are important to maintaining and nurturing the history, pride, unity, and energy of each cultural entity represented here. At this conference, you shared ideas and best practices for revitalizing your languages and cultures. You discussed ideas, such as immersion programs and heritage language training that have proven successful in education and that have stimulated renewed interest in traditional languages and cultural norms and practices—educating and stimulating interest in children, youth and adults. A fresh interest in the languages and cultures of the Pacific could not only rekindle a healthy patriotism, but could lead to greater interest in the study of the history of the region. More than that, it will lead each country to find a workable solution on how to retain its own culture while blending into the modern world: true biculturalism.

For the nations and islands of the Pacific, identifying and incorporating the best of the two cultures is sometimes the greatest challenge of becoming bicultural. An example of a negative aspect of Western culture that has been embraced even within the strong traditional culture of the Marshall Islands, is our unhealthy eating habits. Poor diet has become the norm throughout the Pacific, contributing greatly to the islands having some of the highest rates of non-communicable diseases in the world. It has become such a health threat that the Pacific Island Health Officers Association recently declared a health emergency in the region. Much of the crisis rests with lifestyle choices—poor eating habits, a sedentary lifestyle, high rates of smoking and binge drinking. Lifestyle is one area where a revival of traditional native cultural practices could directly improve the health and therefore the future of these Pacific Islands and their citizens and should be an area of emphasis for this organization.

In the Marshall Islands, my Embassy is funding creative programs for reviving some exciting practices of traditional Marshallese culture. The United States funds a program in which Marshallese are learning the traditional ways of building, sailing, and navigating the sailing canoes that once connected the islands of the region. Another of our programs guides Marshallese women to redevelop the skills of fine weaving of pandanus leaves, creating the intricate and beautiful cloths that once were the norm here. We finance Marshallese who are combining traditional and Western technology to help the fragile coral atolls adapt to the effects of climate change. In short, we recognize that people can only understand one another if they understand themselves first. Or, said differently, biculturalism can only exist when people understand their own roots.

I come from a country that has developed a unique version of multiculturalism that works for us and I certainly don’t expect others to adopt the U.S. model. Instead, my Government encourages each country to find its own path into the future. I hope that all of you gathered here today will take home new concepts and practical ideas for expanding true bilingualism and true biculturalism – promoting the best of all the rich cultural heritages in the Pacific. Best of luck to all of you in your deliberations here and in strengthening your programs in your islands.
Thank you.