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Derek Bickerton

Derek Bickerton

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.


"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."

"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.


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.