Politics & Policy

Amnesty and English

A new citizen holds an American flag at a naturalization ceremony in New York City. (Getty Images)
Telling immigrants they don’t need to learn English does them no favor.

The immigration debate is raging over the wisdom of legalizing 5 million people and the president’s authority to legalize anyone, but we’re overlooking an important aspect of the immigration situation. Consider Europe.

I don’t mean Europe’s own immigration situation; I just mean Europe qua Europe. In the long run, the European Union will probably collapse. The best it can hope for would be success as a commerce-clause organization, regulating interstate trade and setting metric norms. But the EU isn’t going to be the first act of a United States of Europe, because it will never be a melting pot, because everyone speaks a different language.

The Swiss can get away with four languages because of the intense geographical (or geological) bond that comes from the Alps. Tucked away in their little fortress kingdom, they can look down on the rest of Europe and feel Swiss. But theirs is a very, very unusual case. Belgium is always on the verge of dissolution, haphazard cobble of French and Flemish that it is. Czech and Slovak had equal legal status in Czechoslovakia, but the Slovaks were never thrilled that foreign movies got dubs in Czech only. The South Tyrolians, who speak German, want to leave Italy, and the Basques and Catalans, who speak Basque and Catalan, want to leave Spain. The Scots hold onto a lot of their Scottishness, but when it came time to vote, There was enough Englishness  in Scotland– principally, the fact that most Scots speak English — to adhere to the United Kingdom. Shared language is the great homogenizer. During the Cold War cultural exchanges of the early Sixties, my grandfather Herbert Gelernter was invited to a mathematics conference hosted by the Soviets on the Black Sea. The Soviets didn’t speak English and the Americans didn’t speak Russian — but, as it turned out, plenty of Jews on both sides spoke Yiddish, and soon everyone was getting on famously. (Though my grandfather was later banned from the USSR for joining a human-rights petition.)

Consider North America. Crossing into the former Republic of Vermont isn’t much of a culture shock; neither is a trip into the former Republic of Texas. Most of Louisiana gave up French for English, and it’s quite happy being a United State. But Quebec still wants out of Canada. Most Québécois speak English, or some English, but their French language is a gold-standard guarantee of French culture. In the U.S., a French surname is meaningless as regards culture: You don’t hear the names Beaumont and Boyer and Duvall and assume they come with a different language, different culture, different foods. You don’t give it a second thought. Not so our neighbors to the north.

It boils down to this: How can you find common ground with someone if you can’t talk to him? Immigration to the United States used to mean plunging into the melting pot, and being absorbed into that glorious fondue that is the American people. But there’s a popular notion, dating back to the Seventies’ cultural revolution, that wanting immigrants to learn English is bigotry.

In fact, telling immigrants they don’t have to learn English is a crime against immigrants. In Israel, native Arabs speak Hebrew because the economy is driven by Hebrew-speaking business; Hebrew is the language of upward mobility. Learning it — even if God knows you have no intention of becoming a Jew — is prudent. It’s practical. Likewise English in the United States. There is a limited number of jobs you can get in this country without being able to speak English. And outside of being a Japanese free-agent pitcher, none of them pays well. When my paternal grandfather’s parents immigrated, they spoke Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, German, Hungarian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. But they made sure my grandfather’s mother tongue was English, because they wanted him to be able to go to college and get a good job (and attend mathematics conferences). Learning English — like learning to drive a car or do arithmetic — is part of the price of doing business in the United States.

Americans don’t have to speak English in spite of multiculturalism; they have to speak English because of multiculturalism. Would the country work if Pennsylvania spoke Dutch and Minnesota spoke Norwegian? Would life be better in a Tower of Babel? And just as learning English integrates you into the multi-ethnic mainstream of America, not learning English keeps you part of a separate class. And not being able to get a good job keeps you part of a separate class — the lower class. Economically speaking. Who could possibly want that? Cui bono?

Only a political party that gets votes by promoting strife and special interest. I won’t point any fingers.

But I will say this: Many of that party’s intellectuals sincerely believe that this country ought to be bilingual. They’re getting their way over amnesty; bilingualization is the next step. But, as the saying goes, a bilingual nation is a precarious nation. Raise your hand if you want to be Belgian.

— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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