Politics & Policy

Septalingualism

Nanny Bloomberg's latest scheme may turn New York into the Skyline of Babel.

If you like bilingualism, you will love septalingualism.

Big Apple Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest brainstorm outstrips his notorious war on trans-fats, both for its audacity and sheer senselessness. America’s largest municipality soon will conduct official business not only in English and Spanish — which is bad enough — but also five more foreign languages: Russian, Chinese, Korean, French Creole, and Italian.

“This Executive Order will make our city more accessible, while helping us become the most inclusive municipal government in the nation,” Bloomberg crowed as he signed this measure on July 22 (a PDF version of which is available here).

Bloomberg’s linguistic smorgasbord opens during a financial tempest. Thanks to Wall Street’s woes, tax revenues have tanked. As the New York Post has noted, 16 of the state’s largest commercial banks sent Albany $173 million in Bank Franchise Tax payments in June 2007. These same institutions remitted just $5 million this past June — a 97-percent contraction.

Meanwhile, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Nicole Gelinas calculates, Bloomberg’s inflation-adjusted, per-capita spending has averaged 4.5 percent annual growth — quadruple the analogous figure for former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Red ink flows where Bloomberg’s rising government-spending curve intersects with Wall Street’s plunging tax-revenue curve.

Into this intensifying fiscal turbulence, Bloomberg has steered his stunningly extravagant new multilingual initiative. At least 77 city agencies now must assign or hire Language Access Coordinators to determine which municipal services will be delivered in which of these idioms. Some city forms will be translated into all seven languages; elsewhere, city personnel will perform their duties daily in these languages. Perhaps interpreters will rush in if, say, Haitian immigrants want to discuss the City Charter in French Creole. As the police and fire departments struggle to fight criminals and blazes, how exactly will Bloomberg finance all this? Are tax hikes just around the corner?

Bloomberg ordered this indulgence without forecasting how hard it may slam New York’s beleaguered taxpayers.

“We don’t have cost estimates,” admits Evelyn Erskine, Bloomberg’s deputy press secretary. “We’re in the first stages of planning. Some agencies will have to translate documents online. Some with branch offices may have to hire people.” By January 1, Language Access Coordinators must recommend how their agencies will satisfy Bloomberg, and at what price.

Taxpayer dollars aside, Bloomberg’s septalingualism is a cultural migraine in the making and an insult to its supposed beneficiaries. Are today’s immigrants too feeble to learn English, as did the 12 million immigrants who filed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954? Since when have Italians, of all people, become too wretched to fathom English? Is it too much to ask today’s Italian arrivals to speak America’s common tongue, as did the forbears of such distinguished New Yorkers as Giuliani, former governor Mario Cuomo, Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone, and Academy Award–winning director Martin Scorsese?

Before long, Bloomberg’s crazy scheme will likely ignite demands for ballots in these languages. And why not Chinese, Russian, and French Creole subway announcements? The city that epitomizes the melting pot will devolve into a modern Skyline of Babel in which New Yorkers increasingly coexist with no shared means of communication.

This will not simply inconvenience English-speaking New Yorkers, but will hobble Koreans, Russians, French Creole speakers, and others who will have one less inducement to understand English, today’s lingua franca of global commerce. Bloomberg’s folly will marginalize these people, rather than merge them into the American mainstream with the linguistic tools to compete in an increasingly demanding world economy.

“I think this will hurt immigrants’ longterm assimilation into American society, both socially and economically,” predicts Russian émigré Yuri Mamchur, director of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute’s Real Russia Project. “Most workplaces require them to speak English. This policy does them no favors.”

Indeed, Bloomberg should scrap this program before it unleashes havoc. Its unspent outlays instead should teach immigrants to speak and write English. This will help them become productive citizens who interact with the vast majority of Americans — who speak English, not Korean or Spanish.

Before Mayor Bloomberg’s next stroke of genius, he should go fix Gotham’s proverbial windows, which are breaking anew. In short: Silvoulpè met asasen lan prison, arête moun kap sal mi yo ak grafiti, retire mandyan ki sou twotwa yo, netwaye lari a. That’s French Creole for “Please jail murderers, arrest graffiti vandals, and sweep derelicts off the sidewalks.”

Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.

© 2008 Scripps Howard News Service

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a contributor to National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.

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