Strange Tongue

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The folly of English-only

"English-only" is racism lite.

A bigot came up to me the other day and started beating my ear about English Only. He should have known better. For us linguists, all languages are good and you can't have too many of them.


But according to him, if we allow people to use foreign languages for any official purposes, if we allow any language other than English to be used in classrooms, we're on the road to disaster. Soon there'll be fighting in the streets, and the end of our country as we know it. Not to mention the expense of having to publish all school textbooks and official documents in two or more languages.

 

"Well," I said. "I know one country that's had hardly any trouble, inside or out, for several centuries. And," I added, knowing this would please him, "not merely does that country allow guns--it mandates that all men of military age have guns in their homes, and ammunition, and that they be ready to use them at a moment's notice. Just like the old Minutemen."

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"And of course, that's a country with just one language," the bigot said confidently.

 

"No it isn't," I said, 'It's got four. All official."

His jaw dropped.

"It's called Switzerland," I said. "The Swiss speak French, German, Italian and Romansh." (Romansh is related to Occitan, the old language of Southern France, and a direct descendant of Vulgar Latin). "All four languages have equal status and children are educated in whatever language is spoken in the region where they live. And that's a country so stable that everyone wants to bank there."

The bigot was silent for a good minute. "Have to get back to you on that one," he grumped. But he never did.

I could have given him an example closer to home. Look at Canada. Most Canadians speak English, but in the province of Quebec they speak French, and as linguistic nationalism swept the globe in the fifties and sixties the Quebecois got very restive. They demanded language rights, and some of them began calling for independence. In 1967 General de Gaulle created an international incident by saying publicly, in Montreal of all places, "Vive le Quebec libre!" (Long live free Quebec). By 1970 the Quebec Sovereignty movement was into full-scale terrorism--bombing, kidnapping, murder. Did the Canadian government respond with draconian laws enforcing English-only throughout Canada? No, it adopted a policy of conciliation. Not only was French made an official language on a par with English, all government bureaucrats who were monolingual in English had to learn French as a condition of employment. They got a year's paid leave in a French-speaking city of their choice, and they were expected to come back as fluent French speakers, or else. The smart ones chose Aix-en-Provence; I was working there in the late eighties, and found that a large chunk of the expatriate community consisted of high-ranking Canadian civil servants. Can you imagine their Washington counterparts enduring forced exile in Cartagena or Quito?

 

English-only is racism lite. It pits mostly whites against many who have darker skins. If America prides itself on treating everyone equally and being the land of the free, it should grant everyone who lives here the freedom to do their business, personal or official, in their own native language. Don't be a Chicken Little: the sky didn't fall in Switzerland, it didn't fall in Canada, it won't fall here. True, there are still Quebecois separatists, but when was the last time you heard a peep out of them? English-only advocates need to learn that the velvet glove will buy you far, far more than the mailed fist.

Derek Bickerton is emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii; his most recent book is More Than Nature Needs: Language, Mind, and Evolution.

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