Nonsense our official language
Malibu Times
May 24, 2006

Pam Linn

Not since the brouhaha over the teaching of Ebonics at inner-city schools has there been such a furor over what we say and where, when and how we may say it. And now the Congress, drowning in the turgid waters of failed immigration policy, wastes precious time legislating English as the nation's official language.

Lipstick on the pig of unenforceable borders.

Will the xenophobes want to make it a felony to sing the national anthem in Spanish? Dios mio.

The reality is that few American children, or their parents for that matter, understand what the words mean anyway. Just ask them to define ramparts and twilight's last gleaming. It's pure poetry used to evoke patriotism. The melody is another matter; so treacherously difficult to sing it requires the talent of René Fleming. Ask Roseanne Barr if she'd be willing to give it another go. Um, better not.

Do we know the words to any other nation's anthem? On Bastille Day in Paris, would we want to sing the La Marseillaise in English? Of course not. The purpose of any anthem is to promote national unity, not to honor the language of every tourist or immigrant.

And as for making English the official national language, it's my understanding that it always has been. To gain American citizenship, one has always been required to learn to read, write and speak at least passable English. Would we want to give citizenship to someone who refuses to learn our language? Well, no. But should we be offended or feel threatened if we hear groups of immigrants speaking in their own native tongue? Or see Spanish signs on their neighborhood stores? No, otra vez.

Bilingual education was shelved not because it was unpatriotic for immigrants to cling to their native Spanish, Korean or Chinese, but because it just plain didn't work. English immersion is what it takes to bring those for whom the language is a mystery (many who were born in the USA) up to grade level in their other subjects. Allowing them to be taught math and science in another language was not doing them any favor. Besides, at some point they have to pass all those no-child-left-behind exams that even native English speakers find daunting. Children can learn languages at warp speed.

France's Ministry of Culture has tried for years to keep their language not only official, but also pure, purging such Anglicisms as le weekend, le tennis, le hamburger, which infiltrated their daily speech long before the EU and globalization.

In this country, we've always been secure enough in our language not to fuss about such things. After all, a huge percentage of words in the Oxford English Dictionary came directly from German, French and Spanish, even though their  pronunciation is often Anglicized. We embraced the German delicatessen and kindergarten because early in our history there was more German spoken in this country than English. Then again in the late '30s, Germans fleeing Hitler descended on Southern California. As a child, I heard so much German it became my second language. Mainly because the cook and my nanny were shameless gossips and I was desperate to understand what provoked their wicked laughter. The German words prompted by the sound of my approaching footsteps were, "Ach. Nix fer kinder." But, of course, I'd already heard the rumor and giggles that preceded them.

Humor is the hardest thing to learn in a foreign language, though we have the French to thank for double entendre. And some of us don't even understand satire in our native tongue. Still, the popularity of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert would indicate more of us are beginning to get it.

Children learn to speak what they hear. If you doubt this, remember the first time you broke something and let fly with a choice four-letter expletive. Your 3-year-old repeated the word perfectly to your amazement, and horror. And just try getting them to unlearn it. My mother thought it safe to swear in German. Wrong. I'd already heard it all and knew the precise translation, which I found hilarious.

Americans should be embarrassed that much of our society deems it unpatriotic to accept more than one language. European children generally are conversant in at least three languages, often more. My grandnieces, at preschool age, spoke fluent French to their father and equally fluent English to their mother. Now temporarily living in Martinique, they will probably also pick up the native language although school is taught in French.

In this country, Spanish was traditionally the preferred second language in California (the first settlers being padres who established our historic missions), as in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. French was taught in states bordering Canada, German in Wisconsin and Minnesota (where all music, including the anthem, sounds like a polka). New Jersey probably still clings to Italian. Farsi seems to have become the lingua franca of Beverly Hills.

So why must we resist becoming bilingual when globalization now demands it. Half the products we buy have directions printed in French, German, Spanish or Korean as well as English. What kind of national conceit would mandate English as our official and only language?

And for those who are offended by the recent Spanish recordings of our national anthem, well, just be glad it isn't Roseanne. Jose, can you see?