My History of English-Only

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

To understand something of the current immigration debate, it might help to look at New York's Lower East Side in the early 1900s through the eyes of Henry Adams, the great-grandson of one president, grandson of another, ambassador to Britain and, toward the end of his life, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography. All those Jews sickened him.

"God tried drowning out the world once," he wrote in a 1906 letter, "but it did no kind of good, and there are said to be 450,000 Jews now doing Kosher in New York alone. God himself owned failure."

One of those "doing Kosher" at that time was my grandfather, Rueben, a part-time garment worker and full-time no-goodnik who placed his two boys in an orphanage when his wife, Judith, died. When he came to visit, the older boy had to translate for the younger. My grandfather never spoke English, and my father never spoke anything but.

You can understand Adams's distress. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was an alien place. Its denizens spoke Yiddish. They were not Christians. They had their own newspapers and theaters and political organizations, and when they rallied for one cause or another -- and boy did they ever rally -- the calls for reform or revolution were uttered in a foreign tongue. This pot was not melting.

Now, of course, the Lower East Side is the East Village and it is cool and hip and young and expensive. The grandchildren of those who did Kosher there have scattered throughout the country, and the English their grandparents did not speak has been mastered and enriched by Bellow and Roth and Chabon and Ephron, not to mention Irving Berlin, if you are that old, or Jon Stewart, if you can stay up that late.

The current immigration fuss has engendered more sloppy thinking and rhetoric than any issue in recent times. The descendants of immigrants wax romantic, confusing legal and illegal immigration -- it's all the same. But it is not. My grandparents were legal immigrants. They came through Ellis Island, papers in hand. It was easier to do so then, but that is not the point. The point is that they broke no law and, as a consequence, sought no amnesty.

But this anxiety about the fate of English and its importance to the culture does have its antecedents, although they are not, of course, exact. The non-English-speaking immigrants of the 19th and earlier centuries could not simply get on an airplane and return to the mother country for a visit. Once they came to America, they usually stayed in America. This is not necessarily true of Spanish-speakers, who can more easily visit Mexico or another Latin American country. Still, the larger culture remains English-speaking and its pull is like an ocean tide. It may take a while, but it will get its way.

In Los Angeles, for instance, radio station KDL shifted in 2003 from Spanish to English because the Latino audience it wanted -- the young -- was increasingly bilingual and what's called "English dominant." English was cooler, hipper and younger, younger, younger. Spanish was the language of mom and dad, and nothing could be fustier -- or, in some cases, more embarrassing. The latter is why, to my regret, I peevishly ignored my Yiddish-speaking grandmother, adamantly insisting she speak English. I thought I was being very patriotic.

In New York City, the library system of a single borough, Queens, typically has the highest circulation of any in the country. That's not because the culturally ravenous Jews of myth and fact are continuing their reading habits but because of a much newer influx of Asians. Many of them read exclusively in their native language, some in two and some, sooner or later, in English only. The richness of Shakespeare's tongue, its universality in commerce and business and above all in entertainment, make it unavoidable. Few things in life are certain, but death, taxes and English certainly are.

It's reasonable, I suppose, to insist on English-sufficiency for citizenship or even for a driver's license. But the nation's so-called political conversation can be conducted in any language -- just as long as it's conducted. The Jews, the Italians, the Chinese, the Russians, the Germans and all the other ethnic groups who once lived cheek by jowl in Manhattan had a vibrant press and raised the roof with their political conversation. Now their descendants rue, as I do, the virtual loss of a tongue. Henry Adams need not have feared. I can read him but not the contemporaries he so reviled.

cohenr@washpost.com


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