Divisive In Any Language

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Yes, let's talk about the English language and how important it is that immigrants and their children learn it.

And please permit me to be personal about an issue that is equally personal to the tens of millions of Americans who remember their immigrant roots.

My late father was born in the United States, and grew up in French Canadian neighborhoods in and around New Bedford, Mass. When he started school, he spoke English with a heavy accent. A first-grade teacher mercilessly made fun of his command of the language.

My dad would have none of this and proceeded to relearn English, with some help from a generous friend named James Radcliffe who, in turn, asked my dad to teach him French. My dad came to speak flawless, accent-free English. He and my mom insisted that their children speak our nation's language clearly, and without grammatical errors.

None of this caused my parents to turn against their French heritage. On the contrary, my sister and I were taught French before we were taught English because my parents took pride in the language of our forebears and knew that speaking more than one language would be a useful skill.

My mom would give free French lessons at our Catholic parochial school to any kid who wanted to take them. When we were young, we'd visit our cousins on a farm in Quebec during the summer, partly to improve our French. (And Parisian French elitists take note: I still love the much-derided accent of the Quebec countryside, which many have compared to the English of the Tennessee mountains.) I tell you all this by way of explaining why I can't stand the demagoguery directed against immigrants who speak languages other than English. Raging against them shows little understanding of how new immigrants struggle to become loyal Americans who love their country -- and come to love the English language.

As it considered the immigration bill last week, the Senate passed an utterly useless amendment sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) declaring English to be our "national language" and calling for a government role in "preserving and enhancing" the place of English.

There is no point to this amendment except to say to members of our currently large Spanish-speaking population that they will be legally and formally disrespected in a way that earlier generations of immigrants from -- this is just a partial list -- Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Norway, Sweden, France, Hungary, Greece, China, Japan, Finland, Lithuania, Lebanon, Syria, Bohemia, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia were not.

Immigrants from all these places honored their origins, built an ethnic press and usually worshiped in the languages of their ancestors. But they also learned English because they knew that advancement in our country required them to do so.

True, we now have English-as-a-Second-Language programs that have created some resentments and, in the eyes of their critics, can slow the transition from Spanish to English. Still, the evidence is overwhelming that Spanish speakers and their kids are as aware as anyone of the importance of learning English. That's why we have an attorney general named Gonzales, senators named Salazar, Martinez and Menendez, and a mayor of Los Angeles named Villaraigosa.

Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, introduced an alternative amendment to Inhofe's that also passed the Senate. It declared English the "common and unifying language of the United States" while also insisting on the existing rights of non-English speakers "to services or materials provided by the government" in languages other than English. As Salazar understands, the best way to make English our unifying language is to avoid making language a divisive national issue.

I make my living writing and speaking in English, and I would preach to anyone the joys of mastering this Anglo-Saxon gift to our nation. My wife and I encourage our kids to speak the language with precision and to show respect for its grammar, as did the nuns who taught me as a kid -- even if some of them spoke French better than English. Politicians who care about the language might usefully think about how it can be taught well, to the native-born as well as to immigrants.

When I put my children to bed, I recite the same prayer that my late mother said for my sister and me. The prayer is in French. I certainly hope that it doesn't make my children any less American to hear a few spiritual thoughts in a language other than English before they fall asleep.


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