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  • Note to English-only group that can't spell "conference": Presidential candidates in Kyrgyzstan have to pass a test in their official language. Could you pass a test in English?

Comments Jun 28, 2009 2:17 pm

In regard to bi-lingualism, the problem is not having Spanish or any of hundreds of other languages spoken.  Rather – by way of real life example – the problem is that when I go to a bank in lower New York, I often find that Spanish is the primary language, and English is only a failing accommodation.  I don’t mind any accent as long as I can understand what is being said.  I also don’t mind grammatical faults (my writing and speaking are far from perfect, but I try).  What makes it difficult is the clear feeling that asking (or needing) to be spoken to in English is an annoyance, that I am the intruder.

When I travel elsewhere, I make an effort to at least learn “travel French” or “travel Italian” or even “travel Dutch.”  It’s not just a question of avoiding being the quintessential “ugly American.” It’s a function of respect and, most importantly, wanting to be understood to obtain the services I need in that moment.

I respect the point of your reductio ad absurdum:  there is no such thing as a native tongue, depending upon how far back you wish to go.  I suppose mana and ma seem to be universal as far back as one goes ... as well as ugg, uhh and unmnm.  Otherwise, there is a functionality to avoiding Babelism within borders.

When so many of our great-to-the-nth-power grandparents came here, they had to learn English.  That was part of becoming an American.  Yes, it was difficult, and some never did manage.  But they understood that they were “coming to the nuisance,” that they were coming to the opportunity and had to conform with at least a minimal way of behaving.  There are hundreds if not thousands of customs which are appropriate elsewhere which have no place here, even today (we might be better off if we incorporated some of them, it is true, but we are not perfect and that it not a requirement of the discussion).

In the end, those who would benefit the most from an English requirement would be those who are required to learn it:  nothing would (or could) require them to not speak their own language whenever appropriate, but at least there would be a uniform system of communication so we have at least a base of common understanding from which to operate.  From that launch point, we could go anywhere.  Literally, literarily, and figuratively.  I have often heard that English borrows from more languages and local dialects than any other language.  From what I have learned, this is true.  So it is clear that American English as a speakers group is not inherently linguistically bigoted or protective, as are the French.

I favor English as the requisite language, and, at the same time, favor teaching two, three or languages starting in Kindergarten or earlier.  It is idiocy to wait until later grades, as we are physically wired to learn many languages in our youth, and it gets more difficult as we get older.  If you want to solve the problem, don’t gloss over it, fix it at the root.  Reforming the teaching system is the root; everything else is just a paint job.  I realize this seems far afield from the original premise, but as with so many things, the problem is often not the apparent problem at hand, but the underlying problem ... or the problem underlying that.

Reply to at 2:17 pm Jun 28, 2009 2:32 pm

I agree with what you say; English is my second language. Though these days Spanish is often a second choice all across the United States.

Everyone in my opinion should be required by law to have a second language. Native born and immigrant alike. Canada has the right Idea on that.


Reply to at 2:32 pm Jun 29, 2009 3:05 am

You said "I favor English as the requisite language, and, at the same time, favor teaching two, three or languages starting in Kindergarten or earlier." and I wholeheartedly concur!!  I live in Hawai`i where almost everyone is of some variety of ethnic mixture, and language is often up for grabs.  I am learning Hawaiian (in an attempt not to be the Ugly American) because 1) I live here, and 2) both English and Hawaiian are the unofficially official languages (i.e. there IS no official language, but those two would be if there were).  My biggest challenge comes from the first generation speakers of other languages who are doing their best to learn English, but who began that quest at a late age (some even as late as I began learning Hawaiian!). 

In support of the parents with children in school, most folks who come from other countries try to make sure their children learn both the language of their heritage (Japanese, Ilocano, Tagalog, Samoan, etc.) as well as the language of their lives (English). This is true even (and sometimes especially) if the parents are less than fluent in English themselves.

It's a good start.


Reply to at 3:05 am Jun 29, 2009 9:26 am

Your comparison to Kyrgystan is not a perfect one.  That would be more like, to use your example, trying to impose a minority native language like some Indian one on a populace that is accustomed to a conqueror's language.  Fact is, the vast majority of people in the U.S. already speak English.  To legislate it as an official language would maintain its dominance, not impose it on a great number of citizens who don't know it, as was the case in Kyrgystan.  Maybe a better example might be India, where English is necessary to maintain national unity in the face of many disparate languages.  A country divided, by language or anything, cannot stand.  If we fractionalize into different societies who can't mutually communicate, if we can't conduct the business of state in a common parlance, we risk falling apart as a nation.  At least Kyrgystan has Russian to keep them together.  Since by nature we are a nation of immigrants, it is not possible to accomodate everyone's language in the affairs of state (so while countries like Israel and Wales have a natural bilinguality or trilinguality, we do not).  We can't write government forms in a hundred different languages.  The best solution is to standardize on one language and invite people to conform, and English is the natural language for that.


Reply to at 9:26 am Jun 29, 2009 12:20 pm

The best solution is to standardize on one language and invite people to conform, and English is the natural language for that.

This is already what happens in the U.S. By convention, the populace speaks English. Products, signs, junk mail, all these things are written in English. Yes, there are signs that have Spanish on them, or even French. But not because they have to have them. Canada requires all packaging to have French as well as English versions, even for the people who live in British Columbia, where (I'm guessing) there are no French speakers.

Yes, in some places in the U.S.,  there are concentrations of immigrants who do not speak any English and the stores in the area cater to those speakers. When has this not been the case in any melting pot country? Sure, for the most part it's Spanish now, but in the first quarter of the 20th century, there were ghettos of all kinds of immigrants who spoke only the language of their homelands. And yet, their children learned English and now, those German, Chinese, etc. neighborhoods have mostly faded away.

So, there's no need to make a law stating that English is the official langauge of the country. Those who desire it really want to use it as a litmus test to determine who the illegal immigrants are. I have yet to hear an argument for having English be the official language which will actually make life on the whole easier or more satisfactory for Americans.

Reply to at 12:20 pm Jun 29, 2009 5:45 pm

I will leave it to the US citizens to decide the relevance of the linguistic parallel to their country, but on a point of fact, Kyrgyzstan has two official languages, Russian and Kyrgyz, which exist in an uneasy tension.  In the days of the Russian Empire and then the USSR, Russian was the medium of official communication, and this privileged the ethnic Russians, who were posted all over as civil servants, managers, technicians, and professionals.  In addition, Stalin and later leaders shifted great swathes of population, such that even now one in eight citizens of Kyrgyzstan are of Russian ethnicity (and slightly more are Uzbeks, but their language has no official status). And finally, one thing the Soviet Union did very efficiently was to teach Russian as a second language, to tie the empire together. 

With nationhood in the early 1990s, all the former Soviet republics faced the decision of how to define themselves. Often, one of the first decisions was to resuscitate the mother tongue as an instrument of ethnic pride and government power.  The Baltic states did this with the intermittent spotlight of the European Union upon them.  Most of the 'stans did this in a short-sighted and vindictive manner, declaring the language of the majority (Tajik, Turkmen, Uzbek) the official language, and effectively dispossessing those who spoke only Russian.  They were encouraged (there's a nice euphemism) to go "home" to Russia, although in fact they and their parents may well have been born in the constituent republic and had never left it.  This triggered a massive brain drain, as the most educated tranche of the population left.  Krgyzstan was one of only two 'stans to refuse the easy populist step of establishing a single state language: Russian and Kyrgyz have equal status under the constitution.

It would be misleading to think of a Kyrgyz citizen who spoke only Russian as being linguistically deracinated: most monoglots are the descendents of Russian immigrants, not settled nomads who have lost their ancestral tongue along with their herds of milking mares. The test given to the presidential candidates strikes me as a proxy for racial or ethnic selection. What lessons there are for the United States in this, it is not for me to say.

Reply to at 5:45 pm