Sunday, July 08, 2007

America Can't Afford to Lose its Common Language

Peggy Noonan's been on a roll lately, with all of her insigthful commentaries on immigration and American values. She's done it again with her article in this weekend's Wall Street Journal, "We Need to Talk." Check it out:

The question of whether America should have an "official language," of whether English should be formally declared our "national language," is bubbling, and will be back, in Congress, the next few sessions.

When you look at papers outlining the facts of the debate, things break down into dryness very quickly. Should "issues of language diversity" be resolved by imposing "linguistic uniformity"? This is like asking if the robots should speak logarithmically or algorithmically. There are few things you can rely on in this turbulent world, but one is the tendency of academics to use language poorly, even when discussing language.

But there's something odd about the English question. It feels old-fashioned. Because we all know America has an official language, and a national language, and that it is English. In France they speak French, and in China they speak Chinese. In Canada they have two national languages, but that's one reason Canada often seems silly. They don't even know what language they dream in.

The real question, ultimately, is whether America wants to go that route. Should we allow America devolve into a nation of two official languages--in this case, following recent demographic trends and realities, English and Spanish?

We've never done that in more than 200 years. It would be radical, and destructive, to do it now.

We speak English here. It's a great language, luckily, a rich one. It's how we do government and business. It's the language of the official life, the outer life, in America. As for the inner life of America, the language of the family, it would be just as odd to change longtime tradition there, which has always been: Anything goes. You speak what you came over speaking, and you learn the new language. Italian immigrants knew two languages, English and Italian. They enriched the first with the second--this was a great gift to all of us--and wound up with greater opportunities for personal communication to boot. Talk about win-win. And so with every group, from every place.

But in a deeper sense, we should never consider devolving from one national language down into two, or three, because if we do we won't understand each other. And we're confused enough as it is.

In the future, with the terrible problems we face, we are going to need to understand each other more and more, better and better. We're going to need to know how to say, "This way" and "Let me help" and "stop" and "here." We're going to have to negotiate our way through a lot of challenges, some dramatic, some immediate, and it will make it all the harder, all the more impossible-seeming, if we can't even take each other's meaning, and be understood.
Read the whole thing. Noonan notes that America is unique. We are unlike nations of the EU, where close proximity to other peoples instills the ease of learning other languages:

For us, or at least the older of us, learning another language is still a leap. As a nation we probably should leap more.

But on English as the language in which we live our shared national life, and share our culture, and our dreams, we should stay where we are. Which hasn't, for 231 years now and counting, been a bad place to be.
Just to air such talk really riles the multicultural left. I got a feel for this after checking some blog links at Memeorandum. Some liberal bloggers really took issue with Noonan's argument, one even positioning her as some high-society matron, not to be nuisanced by all the language diversity. Here was my reponse to that line of thought:

I think you need to live diversity on the ground to really appreciate the importance of a national language. Chinese? Spanish? Who knows what language will be our master in no time! Noonan's absolutely correct. Money doesn't matter. The fact that all walks of life in America, rich and poor, newcomers and oldtimers, young and old, thrive under a common tongue is simply intuitive. To say otherwise is to surrender to the vile, multicultural path of death to the nation. From what I've seen so far, this blog is furthering that agenda, and welcomes that bitter, evil outcome.
But take a look at some of the left commentary for yourself, here, here, here. Talk of English as an official language often blinds people to the powerful role of language as a fundamental element of national identity.

No comments: