A civil tongue

For all my life, I have loved the English language. It is quite possibly the most powerful and amazing language ever to exist, and it is no small coincidence that it is the common language of business, science, and many other pursuits. Its greatest strength is its adaptability; it freely absorbs and assumes words, phrases, and concepts from other languages, almost at whim. I once saw a T-shirt I wish I had bought — it proclaimed, roughly, “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. It lures them down dark alleys, knocks them unconscious, and goes through their pockets looking for loose grammar.”

Likewise, I am proud of my ability with English. I have put a great deal of effort into my mastery of the written word, expanding my vocabulary, and finding new ways to express my ideas.

I sometimes think that that ability came at a price. For all my fluency in English, I have absolutely no talent for any other language. I have studied other languages, but my brain is simply incapable of the linguistic hurdles required to grasp another language besides the one I have been reading, writing, and speaking since childhood. For example, I know exactly two phrases in Dutch — one a vile insult, the other “Happy Birthday.” I tend not to use them, because I’m not positive which is which. I think the greeting is “hartelyk hefeliceerd,” while the fighting word is “klootzak,” but I’m not confident enough to use either.

That might be a factor in why I support the general notion of making English the official language of the United States. English is the language on which this nation was founded. All our founding documents were written in English. Our laws are written in English. The status of English as our national language may not be de jure, but it certainly is de facto.

Because of my inability to grasp any other languages, I decided long ago that I would never travel to places where my English-only brain would not be a hindrance. It is the height of rudeness, in my opinion, to travel to another person’s land and demand that they cater to my linguistic disability. I would never think of traveling to France and insisting that they indulge me by speaking only English to me. (Although the thought of inflicting that kind of arrogance on the French does appeal to my sense of irony.) I have also been invited several times to visit Costa Rica, but again I have declined — the primary language of that nation is Spanish, and I am utterly helpless in that tongue.

It’s not just good manners, though, that prompt this belief of mine. It’s simple survival.

When one cannot speak the common language of a community, a culture, or a nation, one is putting oneself in dire straits in case of an emergency. One must depend on others to pass along one’s thoughts, one’s fears, one’s needs to those in a position to help.

That concern is playing out in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a broken-down city often described as “the armpit of the state.” It’s plagued with nearly all the typical problems of modern cities, such as gangs, drugs, other crime, poverty, a large illegal alien population, corruption, crumbling infrastructures, and scads of other issues.

Lawrence was hit hard by the recent New England flooding. A lot of homes and businesses suffered greatly under the deluge, and the residents are looking for help in recovering.

But for some, the quest for assistance has an additional barrier — a language barrier.

I hate to sound cold-hearted, but when one is seeking help, when one is in dire circumstances, one is in no position to make demands such as “give me this form in Spanish!”

Lawrence, as the article points out, is about 70% Hispanic. But the implication the author conveys is that those people speak only Spanish. I don’t think this is true. I’d be willing to wager that a significant percentage of that group can read, write, and speak English passably. If there are significant numbers that cannot, that is a testament to just how badly the Lawrence school systems (already established as inept — they lost their state accreditation a couple years ago) has been failing.

FEMA is sending in multi-lingual specialists to assist the victims of the flooding, but they aren’t there yet. In the meantime, those seeking help in Spanish are having to wait for the few available translators to get around to them. Meanwhile, those who can grasp English are well ahead of them on the road to recovery.

I know English is not the easiest language to learn, especially as a second language. But in this nation, whether or not Congress has passed a specific bill, it is the common tongue. And incidents like the flooding in Lawrence highlight just how essential knowing the basics of a nation’s common language can be.

As Blanche DuBois learned, depending on the kindness of strangers can be a very dangerous thing.

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