I’ve always been embarrassed by the fact that I speak only English. I grew up in a multilingual household: my Mom speaks English, German, Dutch and Hebrew, and my Dad spoke all but the Dutch. And there I was, speaking only English. It didn’t help that my parents’ friends periodically tried to humiliate me because of my linguistic limitations. I finally hit upon the right argument, though, when I pointed out that, with a few exceptions, no matter where one goes, one finds English. The same cannot be true for Dutch or Hebrew or Polish or Czech or whatever other language these friends spoke. They needed to speak multiple languages as a survival strategy. I, for the most part, did not.
My upbringing has meant that, for me, monolingualism has always been a bit of a sore spot. On one thing, though, I’ve always been quite clear: in America, English should be the first language. Whether or not people tack on a second, or third or fourth, language is a voluntary matter tied into upbringing, linguistic abilities, sophistication, travel plans, etc. Being multilingual may be intellectually virtuous, but it should not be public policy.
English’s status as the primary language in America is important precisely because America, unlike other countries, is a country dedicated to the proposition that people come here from all over and then they become Americans. One of the things that defines the unity these disparate people must obtain in order to continue America as a coherent national entity is language. Lacking language, all we have is Babel — and Babel by Biblical definition means disunity:
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. 6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
For decades, right up until the 1970s, when immigrants came here, they made an immediate effort to learn English. For them, it was a necessary step to assimilation and to the ability to tap into America’s riches. At their homes and in their communities, they could comfortably speak their native tongue, but in the marketplace — the schools, businesses, etc. — English was the lingua franca, and they knew it.
Then PC struck, and it suddenly become rude, demanding, arrogant, culturally insensitive and, worst, imperialistic to demand that immigrants to our shores speak our language. This attitude didn’t come from the immigrants. It came from the Leftist political class. For the immigrants, although they bought into it because it appealed to their own fears and prejudices, it was a disaster. Rather than assimilating, they remained ghettoized. That was in the 1970s, a decade I remember, since my Dad’s professional specialty was teaching English as a second language.
The next step the liberal PC mavens tried in an effort to head of the disaster they were creating was “bilingual” education. In theory, this can be a wonderful thing. Parents who send their children to the Lycee Francais schools have children who speak fluent English (because it’s their birth language, the language in their home, and the language of their community), and who speak fluent French, because it’s the curriculum language in their schools. Likewise, the legions of Japanese kids who attend Japanese school on the weekends, Russian kids who attend Russian schools, and Jewish kids who attend Hebrew school, Chinese kids who attend Chinese school, etc., are all a testament to the way in which a child’s wonderfully adaptable mind can learn both the dominant cultural language and another language.
The PC mavens, however, when they forced “bilingual education” on the public school system in predominantly Hispanic districts cheated. They didn’t really mean to smooth the students’ to learning English. Instead, what they really wanted was to allow Hispanic students in American to have a a Spanish language education. (Again, I know this first hand because of my father’s struggles as an educator in one of those school districts.) The end results was that the children heard only Spanish at home and, once at school, they heard mostly Spanish. They never learned English.
When this little experiment inevitably failed by creating yet another generation of Hispanic children unable to break free of the barrio, the PC people (as was inevitable) refused to admit their error. Instead, they embarked on a nationwide plan to force English into a subservient position to immigrant languages. This plan was quite different from the courtesy, in a tourist spot, of making sure there are signs in multiple languages. When I travel abroad, I’m always grateful for English signs. I never forget, though, that these signs exist not because the host countries believe English is more important than their own language but because (a) it’s good business to make tourists happy and (b) most tourists, regardless of their country of origin, speak English.
In America, the point of multilingualism in the public forum isn’t to accommodate travelers who are struggling with the host language, especially since so many travelers already speak the host language. Instead, it’s a political statement aimed at reminding people that English is an imperialist language and that our large immigrant populations, especially the ones from Latin America, shouldn’t suffer the humiliation of learning the language of their subjugators.
I grew up with the metaphor as a melting pot. By the 1980s, the new metaphor was of a mixed salad, which envisioned everyone happily residing in a single delicious bowl, but still maintaining their own distinctive characters. The attack on the English language, which is this country’s greatest unifying force, is going to demand yet another new metaphor — perhaps fire and gasoline, with the inevitable explosion waiting at the end.