Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bad Language

"It's amazing," said my friend, "there's not a single person here who speaks English!" I looked around, listened. She was right. We were at a Marshall's in northern Virginia, immersed in a sea of Farsi, Arabic, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean and Wolof. The check-out ladies wore saris and burkas. The store manager, the lone American, was trying to explain to three Eastern Europeans why the iPod kits he had for sale might not work on their units. It was taking a long time.

Earlier that week, I'd noticed my local ATM now offered instructions in five languages, and this was not for the lost tourists' benefits. I live in a bedroom community some distance from the Nation's Capital and the nearest place of interest is the National Rifle Association Museum some five miles away. While hiking a trail near the Potomac, I saw that anti-littering signs put up by the National Parks folks were in English and Spanish. 

The US, it turns out, is increasingly catering to its non-English population, not quite realizing that in other circumstances, this might be called enabling, not helping.

When my family and I came to this country in the last millenia, only my father spoke English. He'd been raised in London and had an elegant British accent. My mother and I had barely mastered "yes," "no," and "where's the bathroom?"   

My mother went to Americanization school--that's what it was called. State Department wives volunteered to teach it and it included lessons on English usage, shopping, American mores, what to do and, more important, not to do. I learned English reading Bugs Bunny comics and watching Father Knows Best, Red Skelton and late night wrestling. Back then it was considered of tantamount importance for immigrants to learn to blend in, to become citizens of their adopted nation.

Now we seem to have forgotten something most other nations have known for hundreds of years--that a single, national language unites, and that conversely, different tongues within one set of borders foster nothing but trouble.

Separatism, the bane of any united country, thrives on linguistic differences. Just ask the Basques, Quebecquois, Bretons, Flemish and any number of other minorities seeking to secede from their host countries and form their own enclaves. A united nation speaks one language, a divided one, several.

This is not to suggest that minorities lose their own identity. On the contrary: there is no shame in having pride in one's origins, in celebrating differences as well as similarities. Accepting and building upon others' strengths is what made the US the powerhouse it became in such a short (historically speaking) time. 

But for communities and government organizations such as the National Parks to encourage the use of languages other than English in daily life is foolish. It promotes our differences and, in the long run, will serve only to alienate both the native-born and the newly arrived. 

As H.L. Mencken once wisely observed, "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!"

Amen to that.


  1. Agree!! Enjoying the blog; you put things nicely into nutshells.

  2. How ridiculous this is, you are. You preface your blog with "crotchedy" and exemplify that here. This is not the America to which your family came, and it would seem today's America has brought out the chauvinism in your thinking.