Politics & Policy

Speak Up in English

In the past period, at times when the guns of Iraq were not obliterating all other political sounds, you could make out, here and there, pleas for “language unification.”

That’s one of the alluring titles given (“Escape From Babel” is my favorite) to the political effort to make English the only language officially used in the United States. For example, to cut out road signs in the Spanish language. These signs don’t seriously inconvenience anybody; there is always an English version within sight. But there are Americans who resist the sensation that they are traveling toward a foreign country, when the road map tells you have 75 more miles of Arizona before you’ll actually hit Mexico.

The language-reform movement is not new. It was more than a hundred years ago that an effort was actually made to devise a language, so to speak from A to Z, to which all nations would draw, resulting, after a few decades of experimentation, in universal communication. This language, Esperanto, had its own grammar and its own vocabulary, based on European root words.

There were several conspicuous weaknesses in the Esperanto movement, but you didn’t need more than one to torpedo the idea. That weakness was enunciated in his characteristic short form by Will Rogers. When he said no more about the proposed reform than, “They ain’t gonna do it,” he wasn’t being snotty, in the style of Gore Vidal. He was saying, simply, that to converse every day in a foreign tongue required more effort than most people other than professional linguists would volunteer, and of course he was right. I don’t have the figures at hand, but I believe the new language was mastered by Mrs. Esperanto, and perhaps the children who didn’t get out of the way.

A more modest movement — to sacramentalize 850 English words, a familiarity with which was to be required for anyone seeking a passport or a driving license — was meaty enough to attract the sponsorship of Winston Churchill. But Basic English, as this movement was called, was put on the shelf when Churchill was voted out of office.

What it has got down to in our country, pretty well, is the reverse of Basic English: Any American running for president of the United States today is expected to be familiar with 850 Spanish words. But the average motorist, impervious to political, diplomatic or academic pressures, cannot be counted on to learn what he has to learn about road hazards described only in a language other than his own. And so other ventures in the idea of universal communication have been attempted, the most successful being pictorializations. You don’t need to be a philologist to slow down when the picture on the sign ahead obviously shows a railroad crossing.

But the language lobby has serious ends in mind. There are two bills currently before Congress, one of them passed by the House, specifying that any official communication by the U.S. government must be written in English. This wouldn’t pose a grave hardship, since 99 percent of such communications are already in English. But the one-language constituency wants a great deal more than that. It desires to do away with the use of a foreign language in public as a substitute for English.

The old saw had it that if the use of English were enforced in schools, all boys and girls would soon speak in English, even if at home they speak in Spanish, because the pressure to conform would be irresistible. But it turns out, in the first decade of the 21st century, that this is not universally the case. There are 6-year-olds in school in California (and for that matter, in New York and Florida and Texas), who are taught in Spanish, learning to read from Spanish-language books, and who then return to homes where Spanish is the language spoken and where entertainment from television and radio is on Spanish-language channels.

The movements in California and Arizona to require teaching in the English language are wholesome commitments to civil harmony. The searing question, of course, is: Is it too late?



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