Threat to Good Sense, Not English

Robert Reno

(05/21/98, Copyright © 1998 Newsday Inc.)

The voters of California–so frequently in the advance guard of weird ideas – will soon be asked to join the movement that gives voice to the lunatic notion that English is a threatened language, that children must be compelled to speak it and that public officials must be forbidden to babble in any other tongue.

Support for Proposition 227 – a measure to stamp out bilingual education as if it were a social evil like prostitution or cockfighting – has little to do with education and much to do with an impulse toward a form of militant, defensive anglophonism. It's cousin to the sort of nativist, blame-the-foreigners witchcraft practiced by Pat Buchanan. This movement is found in other states such as Arizona, which recently had to be told by its courts it couldn't outlaw the speaking of non-English languages by state officials, couldn't forbid park rangers even to whisper a few words of Navajo to a lost Indian. Congress itself has recently manifested this paranoia in votes to make statehood for Puerto Rico contingent on the good people of that island taking steps to stamp out Spanish as the cultural instrument of their very identity. This insult to Puerto Rico is, I suppose, the Republicans' strange way of ingratiating themselves to Hispanic voters, the nation's fastest-growing political bloc. All this foolishness flies in the face of two obvious realities. English is the least-threatened language on Earth. And the pool of foreign language speakers in America – more diverse than anywhere else – is a great economic strength.

It seems silly to have to explain that English is the ascendant language in North America as well as every other continent. It was, of course, brought across the North Sea by the Jutes, Angles and Saxons, who were, by and large, a bunch of unwashed Teutonic vulgarians. Their language, which sounded like a series of unpleasant grunts to the cultivated Romans of the day, has through the centuries withstood worse assaults than have been mounted by a few well-meaning California school teachers practicing the heathenistic heresy of bilingualism.

Bastardized by infusions of French and Latin, imposed on the Scots and Irish, spread over Africa, Asia, North America and Australia by marauding British imperialists, English is now the dominant language of commerce and communications. It is the language used in half the world's periodicals, three-quarters of the world's mail and on three-fifths of all broadcast stations. Satellite and Internet communications have intensified this trend. The French, in particular, feel culturally terrorized by English words creeping into the sacred language of Voltaire.

Meanwhile, educators and businessmen fret that America is weak in foreign languages. We spend good money with bad success to make students learn French, Spanish and, increasingly, Chinese, Japanese and Russian. Corporations send employees to crash language courses so they can be better global competitors. It's time we learn to cherish as a national asset the rich variety of languages that thrive in America alongside the English that, let's face it, was foreign to the ancestors of most Americans, even to Pat Buchanan's Germanic forebears.

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