Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Why America Needs One Language

America, from her birth, has had as a common bond a single language. It's not the only language in the world. It wasn't even invented here. But in hard times and prosperity, safety and danger, through political struggles and wars, the single language has allowed Americans of all origins to take full part in public life. Without the ability to speak a common language, we are a mere collection of colocated tribes, soon to disintegrate and be cast into the dustbin of history.

If they share a language, the poorest child can converse with the wealthiest financier, should the need arise. Without a common tongue, the rich and powerful can easily ignore even a mob in the street, a mob much more likely to turn to violence when its well-spoken, cogent and passionately delivered points are, through lack of understanding, ignored as gibberish.

Several factors contribute to the necessity of a common language. I apologize for the lack of scholarship here; your refund is in the mail.

  • Efficiency

    The amount of waste and energy required to accomodate multiple languages is staggering. Teachers, government workers, and really everyone would be asked to communicate in the language preferred bythe few, at the expense of the many. While the elitist would suggest that is good and proper, it is no more realistic than it is just, and it is even less just than it is efficient. Far better to have a single standard and let everyone conform than to have as many standards as are required, which is to say, no standard at all. Taken ad absurdum, we would strain efficiency if all official functions had to have the capacity to be conducted in Esperanto or Klingon for the two people with those as their native languages.

  • Psychology

    Language is not just a tool for communication, it is a mapping of ideas into reality. Language introduces an historical bias in favor of its roots. While both Spanish and English are European, and thus impart a European viewpoint on their speakers, the differences are pronounced. Americans have an ingrained trust and loyalty toward the United Kingdom, stemming initially from our common language and smelted in two world wars. We say we share a common history with the British, but we really mean a common language.

  • Safety

    When a call comes to a 911 dispatcher, safety demands clarity, and clarity is shattered by a language barrier. The same applies to any interaction with police, fire rescue and emergency medical technicians.

    Captain's Quarters
    has the horrific story of a group of illegal immigrant women forced into prostitution by the "coyotes" with whom they had contracted for passage across the border. It turns out that the coyotes were actually pimps who took their identification and forced them to be used in a way so inhuman that 'prostitution' doesn't quite cover it. The business apparently was conducted all in Spanish. I make no attempt to create a bogeyman here: I believe the business was conducted in Spanish to obscure its purposes.

    Not speaking English, the girls were unable to call for help or explain their circumstances.

  • Trust

    People who speak the same language trust each other more. Traveling in a foreign country and meeting a person who speaks your language, a level of trust is established immediately. Conversely, speaking in a private language engenders distrust among those who are excluded.

    Without a shared language, we rely on translators. Translators must not only convey the nuances of thought between two languages, but they must avoid the temptation to insert their own bias. So we must trust the group speaking the foreign language, and also the translator.

  • Economy

    Encouraging a person to speak a language that most others do not is not doing it a favor. Those who cannot fluently speak the dominant language are destined to a life in the underclass.

  • Unity

    Employers and employees, lawyers and waitresses, cops and prostitutes are united together in communication. A nation is united by history, culture, and defense of shared territory -- all of which for all practical purposes require a shared language.
We must resist all attempts to characterize monolingualism as racism, nativism, or any kind of intolerance. It is necessary. Without it, sooner or later we all end up working for the coyotes, or unwittingly becoming them.


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1 comment:

51st Blogger said...

Good post Ancient Greek guy. I'm English and I echo all of the stuff about the unifying power of a common language. That its Brits, Australians and Canadians who are most often in the trenches getting shot at alongside your boys has got to be something more than similar(ish) political systems, values etc. If that was all that was needed then I figure you'd be seeing French legionnaires in the fight more often than you do (or at least the spot in the lines where they were posted before they started running...) A common language obviously has unifying power across oceans and timezones, just think what its importance is within the same nation state?

A lot of your concerns are a direct echo of stuff we have in England. We've got ourselves 1.5m Muslims many of whom are not integrating through to the 2nd and 3rd generation. Partly its language, although English is known it may not be spoken, and partly it is the other things which come from a sense of difference or separateness. For instance the hot topic of the last few months is the debate on women wearing forms of the veil. Much of that debate has been about the veil in the workplace (for instance can you be a language teacher if pupils can't see you're mouth?) but the real heart of the concern is that it is another way in which a (self-)segregated community is created (and as it now turns out, a community which produces suicide bombers to blow up trains in London). How many veiled women will ever have a relationship with or marry a non-Muslim? Hard to see how or why a guy would approach a veiled woman. The blurring and intermarrying which occurred for every previous immigrant community is undoubtedly being blocked by the importance given to retaining a different language and different customs. Its an irony but the liberals in England defend multi-culturalism in almost the same language ("Equal but separate") as former South African governments defended apartheid. Presumably apartheid is the enemy if it is the choice of the white folks, but absolutely fine if it is not!

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