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¿Habla Usted Inglés?

By Melik Kaylan

May 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001. THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.


As the mass of national census data begins to yield up its piecemeal revelations, Americans are going through the once-in-a-decade cycle of learning what their country looks like, or will soon look like. The process is dispiriting. America's citizenry watches itself being shaped by what T.S. Eliot called "vast impersonal forces," with apparently as much say in the outcome as a meteorologist over weather patterns.

Such impotence has made us fatalistic, and ultimately disinterested, in the face of macro-phenomena: Why have an opinion if nothing can be done about it? So we ignore the implications and go about our business. The latest census statistics inform us that, in our largest metropolitan areas, non-white minorities will soon be in the majority and of those minorities, Hispanics and Asians will constitute the majority. One can infer that, over time, a critical mass of non-native English speakers will accrue in those cities.

The lesson is not lost on President Bush, who recently delivered the first bilingual presidential address -- in both Spanish and English -- on the Cinco de Mayo Mexican national holiday. He and most other politicians from both parties are apparently willing to go with the flow toward a multilingual society. At the very least, they are happier to leave the implications unscrutinized and the pros and cons undebated. They seem to share the assumption that, in an increasingly urban population heavily influenced by immigrant cultures, immigrants prefer not to assimilate to a common language.

As a century of immigration has taught us, the assumption is manifestly flawed. Jews, Poles, Italians, Germans, Russians -- indeed most 20th-century immigrants -- came with the express intention of achieving a degree of cultural assimilation, as well as a proficiency in English that would equip them to survive and prosper. Today, the equitable results are visible in the varied ethnic face of success from the president's cabinet on down. That will hold true as long as there remains a core linguistic culture to assimilate to -- by no means certain, if the census indicators hold their course in the future.

History tells us that multiethnic societies kept their unity through a central anchoring language, whether it was Sanskrit, Latin, Byzantine Greek or Ottoman Turkish. When the language dwindles in circulation, the result can be a mandarin class apart, of lawyers, interpreters, scribes and mediators. In short, a linguistic hierarchy develops with new class and power divisions.

Already, the census points to an ominous Rus et Urbs division between America's less-populous English-speaking heartland and its densely polyglot commercial centers. Optimists and advocates of diversity without limits would argue that, as the Babel of cultures will need a mediating lingua franca, the English language will, of necessity, remain in widespread use. Yes, but what kind of English will it be, how communicative, and how unifying?

These days, anyone who lives in a city like New York knows that the currency of everyday speech exchanged with, say, street merchants and taxi drivers, is just that: a kind of currency for making brief, blunt transactions. The same holds true for our global-economy businesses staffed with technically qualified but linguistically diverse personnel from around the world. In such conditions, there's no doubt that English can survive at a professional level, even a legal and technical one. But one fears that we've arrived at a point where, paradoxically, the more people use it, the less of it they use.

The fate of Latin in the Dark Ages, for all its vaunted sway as a lingua franca, should give us pause. The more widely it spread, the thinner it became, eventually dwindling to a series of demotic dialects, with the higher classical Latin retreating to monasteries and courts. If you think the comparison a stretch, consider the fate of most of today's English majors after graduation.

Most are forced to unlearn their literacy in short order if they want to prosper at work or retain their friends. How many are ever able later to employ the language at the intellectual intensity attained during their college years? We accept this as normal. We assume unthinkingly that the real world of experience needs a code of speech less nuanced and less complex than the world of literature or learning. In effect, outside of the universities (and increasingly even there), we have accepted the general dumbing down of our common tongue. How is this different from what happened to Latin?

Boswell quotes Dr. Johnson as saying that he was "always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations." We tend to measure the merit of a language by its relevance to the present; but as Dr. Johnson observed, it also serves as a living heritage, a conduit of a people's memory that links back to its finest thoughts. It is this memory that we are sacrificing when we cede the complexity of English to multilingualism in our urban areas, and ultimately in the wider American culture.

In the 20th century, the Turks and the Chinese altered their alphabets and voluntarily amputated their linguistic memory in order to modernize and stay relevant. The Turks shed Ottoman Turkish and with it the average citizen's direct access to, among other things, centuries of court poetry, metaphysics and indigenous medicine. The Chinese shed their elaborate imperial ideograms and the millennia of intricate philosophical nuances embedded therein. The result, in those countries, is that only specialists have a ready understanding of their equivalent of Shakespeare or Wordsworth or Emerson. We might wince at the profligacy of their choice, but we should look hard in the mirror of our census data first and wonder at our own predicament.

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