Sometime in the 1960s, we were told that since all people and cultures were equal, it was inappropriate for middle-class America to impose the English language on poor people and people from other cultures. The imposition of this racist, colonial way of speaking on young people of other ethnic groups would deprive them of their cultural roots.
There are two problems with this argument. First, at a personal level, it is difficult for a poor person or an immigrant to get anywhere in this country without learning English. There are nearly 200 different languages spoken in America (60 alone in one school in my congressional district in Georgia). Yet nearly all our business, politics, education and commerce is conducted in English. It’s plain easier to have one standard language than a dozen. Even a country like India, which has hundreds of languages and local dialects, has adopted English as the language of commerce and education. It is liberating when people can understand one another.
A generation ago, African Americans were being held back by racial segregation, much of it officially sanctioned by the government. Then the moment of liberation came. Tragically, it was at that very moment that the educational establishment decided that standard English was no longer necessary and that grammar and spelling skills could be ignored. While this has had a gradual corrosive effect on middle-class students (virtually every employer, including Congress, can tell horror stories about trying to find college graduates who can write effectively), it has been devastating to poor African Americans and their ability to get good jobs.
Learning language is hard work. Being able to write clearly, converse fluently and read with comprehension--these are difficult skills that virtually every student (including me) would have liked to avoid. But if they are not learned in childhood, it becomes much more difficult to do so when you are an adult.
When poor children are told that practicing basketball is better than practicing English, they are more than willing to take this advice. Only in later years will they discover that they have literally dribbled away their opportunities for happiness and a good job. If they belong to a gang that ridicules standard English, they may be marked as strange or uppity for speaking well. If no one at home can spell or use grammar correctly, the difficulties are much worse.
The final result is an angry young man who feels that violence is the only way he can express himself, or a young girl who thinks that the only great accomplishment she can achieve in life is to have a baby. Many of the 12- and 13-year-olds now filling our maternity wards cannot read their own children’s birth certificates.
The problem is even more acute among first-generation immigrants and their children. Historically, immigrating to America was an exhausting but exhilarating experience. The millions of immigrants who came through Ellis Island hoped to find happiness and give their children a better life, but it was hard work. The new land was a school of hard knocks that compelled every immigrant family to immerse itself in the process of becoming American.
According to the theory of the melting pot, if people had wanted to remain immersed in their old culture, they could have done so without coming to America. Immigrating itself was a reaching out for a new and better future. It expressed a willingness to learn, grow and change in the pursuit of a better life. It was not uncommon for people to take two or three jobs to make ends meet. People often lived in crowded and unhealthy circumstances. Yet people kept coming to America because the sense of opportunity outweighed the hardship.
Today the counterculture left and its allies profess to smooth the path for immigrants by setting up bilingual education programs, making it possible for children to continue in their own language. In fact, they have actually made it more difficult. Bilingual education slows down and confuses people in their pursuit of new ways of thinking. It fosters the expectation of a duality that is simply not an accurate portrayal of America.
Immigrants need to make a sharp psychological break with the past, immersing themselves in the culture and economic system that is going to be their home. Every time students are told they can avoid learning their new native language (which will be the language of their children and grandchildren), they are risking their future by clinging to the past.
There are also practical problems. With 200 languages spoken in United States, it is physically impossible to set up bilingual education for each one. No school system could possibly afford it. In addition, educators and professionals who make their living running these programs often become the biggest opponents for letting these people move into the mainstream. Sadly, there are some ethnic leaders who prefer bilingualism because it keeps their voters and supporters isolated from the rest of America, ghettoized into groups more easily manipulated for political purposes often by self-appointed leaders.
By time-honored tradition, new American immigrants have joined various friendship societies and fraternal organizations that help maintain the holidays, customs and cuisines of their ancestral homes. The more immigrants assimilate to America, the more they often want to renew social and fraternal ties with “the old country.” We all remember and celebrate our past--but we remain aware that it is the past. We can all honor our racial or cultural identities without assuming this fact alone will inevitably determine all our ideas and our politics. Maintaining one’s special identity is perfectly compatible with assimilation into American civilization--indeed is a characteristic of it.
The new multiculturalism takes a much more radical approach. Bilingualism keeps people actively tied to their old language and habits and maximizes the cost of the transition to becoming American. As a result, poor Americans and first-generation immigrant children have suffered pain and confusion.
Yet the personal problems caused by bilingualism are over-shadowed by the ultimate challenge they pose to American society. American can absorb an amazing number of people from an astonishing range of backgrounds if our goal is assimilation. If people are being encouraged to resist assimilation, the very fabric of American society will eventually break down.
Every generation has two waves of immigrants. One is geographic--we call them “immigrants.” The other is temporal--we call them “children.” A civilization is only one generation deep and can be lost in a very short time. Insisting that each new generation be assimilated is the sine qua non of our survival.
The only viable alternative for the American underclass is American civilization.
Without English as a common language, there is no such civilization.