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Language and Cohesion: Ain’t Broke? Don’t Fix It!
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Some countries had little choice but to live with the diverse languages they inherited. Americans long had one less issue to brawl over because our ancestors accepted a common language rather than cling to the cacophony of tongues imported by their immigrant ancestors.

When I took up temporary residence in Canada in 1980, the locals were once again angrily waving competing flags in each others’ faces. During my first and previous visit 15 years earlier, a different flag war had been underway.

Language clearly was the issue that 2nd time around, and the flag with the fleurs-de-lis symbolized for the French-speaking Québécois an important aspect of their separate identity. The Maple Leaf flag by then represented Anglo dominance. When news was confirmed that the referendum on independence from Canada failed by a hairline, angry Quebec separatists outside the Complexe Desjardins where I worked had amazingly managed to bend the massive flagpole enough to reach the flag and tear it down.

In Victoria, British Columbia in 1965, language itself wasn’t the issue. But the country’s collective identity was. The recent replacement of Canada’s old Red Ensign with the newly adopted Maple Leaf was still provoking ostentatious brandishing of flags, boisterous taunting and some minor skirmishes among competing flag partisans. I was visiting from California with a Canadian classmate, a fellow engineering student with a highly rational outlook on things. He and his family kept their cool, but they were descendents from a long line of United Empire Loyalists, and the official disappearance of the old flag in that bastion of Anglo-Canadian identity was not the optimal welcome home present.

The squabbling there was over a symbol of common identity. In Quebec it was more over what the sides did not have in common, namely a language. The bitterness surrounding the latter was more intense than it was among the relatively staid, culturally British flag waivers across the continent earlier. The native French-speaking Québécois who numerically dominated their province were being pushed toward minority status as new immigrants overwhelmingly opted for English as their preferred language. There was a more violent reaction in Quebec, but relatively minor compared to identity wars elsewhere in the world. It had been humiliating enough that their pronunciation and dialect were routinely ridiculed by smart-alecks from la Métropole, the linguistic “mother country” across the pond. But as Quebec’s Francophones regained confidence and the upper hand, discrimination against the use of English was institutionalized. The pettiness was often grating, but I sympathized with the native French speakers’ determination to save their language from becoming marginalized.

Functional, but not what California should be dreaming

It is good that they succeeded in doing so without formal separation from Canada. National sovereignty is not an all or nothing proposition. And language conflicts within nation states are hardly all alike. Unlike in heavily Spanish speaking US states such as California, Quebec’s history as a majority French-speaking province has been continuous since colonial days. Even after France’s defeat by British arms on the Plains of Abraham and its ensuing loss of Canada, the Quebec Act of 1774 over a decade later enshrined the continued governance of French law in civil matters. And the language prevailed among the populace despite a long period of English dominance in business and governing circles. Quebec’s more recent autonomy and compromise with the rest of Canada has produced a functional bilingual nation. Similar autonomous solutions involving different officially recognized languages also function with varying degrees of success in other parts of the world, notably in Europe. But “official” status generally covers linguistic groups whose substantial presence predated the breakup of old multi-lingual empires into contemporary nation states. They function as compromises resolving old situational conflicts. However functional those compromises may sometimes be, the situations that engendered the conflicts behind them are not ones we ought to be emulating.

Years before learning a foreign language had become a tedious high school requirement, boyhood friends and I were involved in a stick throwing fight with some “Spanish kids” whose families had settled several blocks away from us. Throughout those adolescent years in Brooklyn, it was common to tease each other with clichés about our different ethnic ancestries. But it was all done in English, and except for the “Italians” whose ancestors generally had immigrated more recently, few of us had family members who spoke another language. None of my own grandparents did, so I was surprised to learn from my mother that our tough “Spanish” adversaries were in fact Puerto Ricans and that she had a grandparent who had emigrated from Spain as a teenage orphan nearly a century earlier. He was one of the shapers of that great melting pot that helped so much to shape the nation, marrying a native New Yorker of Irish descendent whose offspring went on to marry descendents from other European countries. As a college student newly curious about languages upon returning from my first European vacation, I asked one of them, my maternal grandmother, why she and her siblings never learned German although both parents had been born in that country. She summed up the prevailing attitude with an anecdote about strolling with her father in the early 1890s when an acquaintance started speaking to them in German. “Speak English,” her father countered. “We’re in America now.”

Stubbornly narrow-minded, I thought, and belatedly began learning some foreign languages myself. But English was part of the new identity then to which 19th century immigrants like my ancestors had willingly committed themselves. In today’s more globalized age a second language can be far more useful to Americans. Still, as Harvard’s late professor Samuel Huntington noted, It is quite different to argue that Americans should know a non-English language in order to communicate with their fellow citizens. Yet that is what the Spanish-language advocates have in mind.”

There you go again!

We’re seeing renewed efforts along these lines in California. Inherently divisive bilingual education is again being promoted there after Ron Unz helped put a stop to it decades ago. Ethnic pandering among politicians has long been a staple of American politics. But the combination of cynicism, confused public notions of tolerance is helping today’s political breed to endanger, as seldom before, a common classroom language that has been a tried and tested unifying element of our national social fabric.

Nation states without a clear dominant language are high maintenance, though their inherent contradictions can at times be amusing. A native French speaking Belgian student of my wife told us of encountering a Flemish Belgian at a train station in Vienna. Each had once obligatorily learned the other’s language, but each was damned if he or she would communicate in the other’s language. “Crazy,” she laughed. “We’re such a tiny country. But we spoke English to each other as a compromise.”

Would that all such language tensions remain so innocuous! One wonders if those wanting to bury America’s long successful tradition of assimilation, facilitated through a common language, follow what’s been going on elsewhere in the world. While “communal strife” and civil wars can be stirred up by other identity-related factors, gratuitously adding to the mix of potential causes makes little sense.

Widespread vaunting of one’s commitment to ever more societal “diversity” may reflect a compulsive collective need to counter suspicions of repressed inclinations toward intolerance. For political hucksters, promoting tribalism is presumed to be a sure vote getter.

The calculation is based on a belief that the fondest aspiration of immigrants is to import as many compatriots as possible in order to make their new surroundings look and sound as much as possible like the countries they left behind.

I don’t know if my one-eighth Spanish ancestry would qualify me as eligible for pandering to by these politicians. Spanish was not one of the foreign languages that I eventually acquired, although interest in that area of my “roots” once got me a center page Sunday spread in one of Spain’s newspapers. And that in turn introduced me to new friends and distant relatives about whom I had not previously known. To acquire some credibility as an “ethnic” rejecting ethnic pandering, however, I would probably have to adopt my mother’s maiden name as a “segundo apellido.” It is, after all, the Spanish custom. More feasibly, I’ll just hope that there are enough genuine “Latinos” in the US who realize that politicians wanting their kids to learn basic grade school subjects in a language other than English are not offering them any favors.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Bilingual Education 
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  1. The Chinese sign is a bit irregular.

  2. this is what pisses me off when i hear the moaners claim “America is a nation of immigrants” and conveniently leave out the last part “bound by a common language”

    say the whole thing or nothing at all.

  3. “but each was damned if he or she would communicate in the other’s language”

    as was told to me by a good friend, his dad had a saying, in Spanish of course, that translates into “English is the language of the dogs” and he simply refused to speak it.

    • Replies: @Hubbub
  4. The only country that I know of that works reasonably well with multiple languages is Switzerland. But the division is canton by canton: speak French in a German-speaking canton, unless you’re an obvious foreigner, and you’ll get a very chilly reception.

    • Replies: @anon
  5. Here in South Africa the Language is Afrikaans YET actually the majority are of Dutch descent.
    However the defence of Afrikaans as THE TAAL is from the Huguenots french protestants driven to leave 300 years ago by a staunch Catholic king,yat modern french visitors are driven to absolute distraction by the MIS pronounciation of the french parts of the Taal such as DuToit which the french correctly say is DU TOIT with the T and the Taalrts say DU TOY many words in fact fhe most grating to
    the French is Labuschagne/Yet the actual pride in this invented language is from the French side and only as an aside by the Dutch as rge dutch do not have rgw same feeeeling towards it as the french do everywhere

  6. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The Russian sign is not only a bit irregular but preposterous. If the artist can get “nihon go” correct, would it be onerous to copy the proper Cyrillic?

    And the German is “Deutsch” not “Deutsche”.

  7. Rehmat says:

    Gene Tuttle – did you know Canada used to be part of United states as British North American colony? So why they fought and separated from United states? Because they were ‘royalists’ and considered the so-called ‘US Fathers of Nation’ as traitors.

    French were the first to establish a colony in Quebec long before the English horde came and occupied Quebec. A great majority of them still despise them and hate to speak English at home or in public. The Quebec Nationalists still dreaming to establish an independent French-speaking state. The current prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau is son of country’s long-running prime minister Pierre E. Trudeau was a 100% French, though Justin’s mother was of English descendent.

    In the good-old days, Canada, though a multi-cultural nation, was considered ‘antisemite’ by many American ‘patriots’. Why? Because Mackenzie King’s government during WW II tried to keep European Jews away from Canada. Frederick Charles Blair, head of immigration in a letter compared Jews clamoring to get into Canada to hogs at feeding time. Now Quebec is home to country’s larges population.

    Former Quebec Israel-First premier Pauline Morois said in 2014: ‘PQ must continue its struggle for Quebec independence and defense of French language and culture’.

  8. @Rehmat

    In much of Quebec, outside of Montreal and Quebec City, particularly in rural areas, French is for all intents and purposes the ONLY language spoken by the populace. My wife’s family, though French-Canadian, lives in the western part of New Brunswick, right on the border with Maine. Although this area is predominantly French (with a not insignificant minority of Irish descendants), everyone there is bi-lingual out of necessity due to the proximity to Maine and the English-speaking majority of central and eastern New Brunswick. As a result, there is nowhere near the animosity towards non-French speakers as elsewhere in Quebec.

  9. There is an interesting collection of short videos titled Do You Speak Belgian? They discuss the separation between the Flemish and French speakers and the lack of a national identity in Belgium.

  10. CanSpeccy says: • Website

    did you know Canada used to be part of United states as British North American colony?

    Not so.

    Canada comprised a number of British colonies, which became independent of the United Kingdom in the year 1867. At no time was Canada or the British colonies from which Canada was formed part of the United states.

    • Replies: @Rehmat
    , @anon
  11. Rehmat says:

    Really! From which university did you learn North American history – Tel Aviv or Ben-Gurion?

  12. Rehmat says:

    Canada like United States is colonized by a foreign entity.

    On March 22, 2016, UNHRC president Choi Kyong-lim (S. Korea) sent a letter to all 47-member states at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recommending professor Stanley Michael Lynk (Western University, London, Ontario) as the new special rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories (Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem) effective March 31.

    On March 16, the Winnipeg Jewish Review published an Open Letter to Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau demanding that he disqualify both candidates for their criticism of the Zionist regime. The joke is Canada is not a member of UNHRC, but Saudi Arabia is.

    But that didn’t stop Canadian foreign minister Stephane Dion calling on UNHRC to review the appointment of professor Michael Lynk as its special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine.

  13. anon • Disclaimer says:

    Your historical revisionism is funny.

  14. anon • Disclaimer says:

    Don’t try arguing with him. He says that Canada used to be part of the United States as “British North American colony”.

    But since the United States ONLY BECAME the United States AFTER it established its independence from Britain and since this Independence never included Canada, his statement is not only not logical, it is a denial of logic itself.

    • Replies: @CanSpeccy
  15. anon • Disclaimer says:
    @Diversity Heretic

    That’s because Switzerland has a very strict policy of territorial unilingualism; French-only in the French areas, German-only in the German areas, Italian-only in the Italian areas, etc. Everybody knows exactly where they stand, everybody knows they cannot agitate for their language “Rights” in the other groups areas, so all trouble is immediately nipped in the bud.

    It is a very sensible policy. The exact opposite of the ludicrous and incredibly expensive, sub-continental, bilingualism everywhere, policy of the Canadian government.

  16. anon • Disclaimer says:

    Bilingualism is a Trojan horse that will lead only to trouble for Americans. Don’t open this Pandora’s box! You will be sorry.

    • Replies: @interesting
  17. CanSpeccy says: • Website

    Thanks, Anon, for setting the historical record straight.

  18. I have no problem with encouraging bilingualism if a number of conditions are met.
    1. There is ONE official language, which ALL children MUST learn at school at ALL schooling levels. In the US that language is English.
    2. Children should be encouraged to learn a second language. Encouraged, NOT forced. The choice of language should be decided by the child and their family.
    (Say) a Japanese child should not be forced to learn (say) Spanish.

  19. @anon

    bad news, it’s already been opened, i could go weeks here in southern California and never hear English being spoken.

    unless it’s to me.

    • Replies: @anon
  20. anon • Disclaimer says:

    I am genuinely sorry to hear that. America has absolutely nothing at all to gain and everything to lose from the growth of another language (or more). Any unilingual state has an automatic advantage over any bilingual or multilingual state. Even if there is zero political tensions or cultural frictions (very rare), there is still the huge costs of having more then one language. Here in Canada, the federal government alone spends annually the better part of a billion dollars on bilingualism. Nor does this count the provincial governments and the many hidden costs of having two languages. As Peter Brimelow noted in THE PATRIOT GAME “somebody has to pay for all those bilingual cereal boxes”.

  21. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Emilio García Gómez, PhD

    Linguistic schizophrenia. A note on Gene Tuttle’s “Language and Cohesion” (The UNZ Review, March 25, 2016)

    There are people who enjoy the howling of wolves, the neighing of horses, or the chirping of crickets, and detest the sound of the language and the accent of their neighbors. A very rare case was that of an American schizophrenic named Louis Wolfson who wrote a book in French (Le Schizo et les langues, 1970), as a result of his pathological obsession about English, his mother tongue. Wolfson could not bear to hear or speak that language. Some consonants would alter his nerves and ricocheted in his brain as if it were a sounding board. So he began to use radical methods like wearing headphones, listening to radio broadcasts in French, German, Russian or Hebrew, gnashing his teeth and muttering phrases in foreign languages. Finally, in his attempt to destroy the language that caused him so much distress, he invented a nifty method to transcribe the similar English sounds into various foreign languages.

    Hatred against second or foreign languages has always been common among humans because it is felt they threaten the integrity of their territory. Gene Tuttle’s reference to the two Belgians meeting in Vienna, refusing to speak the other’s language -French and Flemish-, although they were fluent in both- is symptomatic. There is the myth that in Spain the only language to be spoken should be Spanish; in Catalonia, Catalan; in the Basque Country, Basque; in Quebec, French; in the USA, English. Totally wrong. Anywhere in the world, speaking a certain language is an individual and collective asset that must be guaranteed by laws and enhanced by positive actions. Preventing people who express themselves in the language or dialect of their choice violates one of the fundamental principles of human beings.

    A language is a tool for communication, not a stigma or a weapon. Its real value is instrumental and utilitarian. We cannot forget the long periods of repression of the Romanian vernacular by Hungarians, Ukrainian by the Russians, Polish by the Germans.

    Linguistic diversity is very much above political strategy. Any movement of intimidation against individual and community forms of expression must be stopped by all means –always peacefully and ruled by arguments as dictated by reason-. In their own interest, those who wish to interact in a social context always find the right linguistic or paralinguistic vehicle leading into successful communication.

    Perhaps the initial argument points at the desirability that speakers adapt to the linguistic situation of the country –when in Rome, do as the Romans do-, but the case is often used to alter reality through strategies conducive to genuine assimilation, ie the replacement of one language for another. Most territories all over the world have historically been plurilingual. Monolingual countries are few. Even in this case, they contain a variety of dialects and subdialects which struggle to preserve their identity against standardization and officialdom.

    Linking the language to a territory and an ethnic group is relatively recent. In the 19th century began to take form the idea that wherever there is a language, there is a nation. Consequently, there is a full right to exercise power from, to and within the community. Thus, the German philosopher Fichte, rector of the University of Berlin in 1810, indirectly prompted states to ensure internal harmony as expressed in socio-ethno-linguistic terms. A century later, at the end of the WWar I, the Treaty of Versailles confirmed the delineation of borders by linguistic areas, which meant putting some minorities off the road. Dauzat (L’Europe linguistique, 1953) aptly described the expansionist thinking of Mussolini during WWar II. The transalpine dictator, with a shrewdness worthy of himself, pointed the way for the absorption of Tirol by repopulating it with Italians. And the same thought was in Hitler’s mind, following an ultra-nationalistic philosophy rooted in a common language, with German-speakers in Poland, Alsace, Austria and Sudetenland (Bohemia), grouping them under the tricolor flag of Greater Germany, after occupying these territories by force.

    On the other hand, the reunification of Yugoslavia conducted by Tito was completely sterile, as seen after his death. The transformation of Canada in a federal country in the nineteenth century has never been satisfactory to either party and francophones continue trying to break away from anglophones.

    It does not seem possible that hawks and doves can nest in the same tree. Even the post-tribal culture is unable to absorb the divisive impact of human nature. Political and ethno-linguistic tensions outweigh any conciliatory effort. Everything seems to respond to the cyclical momentum of dissatisfaction, exclusive to our species: braking the bonds, tying up loose ends. People living in poverty hardly care about who they have as a neighbor, unless they are forced to defend themselves or prevent them from stealing what little they have. On the contrary, nationalism and awareness of the language and culture come hand in hand with welfare and political power. Then, the voice of national reaffirmation flows from the throats, like lightning from heaven. “This is our land and our language; we have lived here for generations,” Indeed, who can doubt that the Basques –an admirable ethnic group, just like all of them- have always been there, in the western part of the Pyrenees?

    “Please, forget your past”, the nationalist governments in the Basque Country and Catalonia are telling students in the public schools. You are no longer Andalousian. You are in Catalonia now. Learn Catalonian. Learn Basque. You will be deprived of your culture and forced to reacculturate. Or else, leave.

    Inglehart and Woodward (Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1967) conducted a study on linguistic conflicts and political communities. According to them, the language divide inevitably leads to political conflict, but this is accentuated when the dominant group blocks the mobility of the subordinate group, especially on language issues. If the group that controls the power gives preference in recruitment to those who speak the dominant language, the subgroup has the following options: assimilation, mobility or no resistance. Well evident is the intense processes of assimilation that have been pressing immigrants in the United States since the mass exodus of Europeans began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The presence of inert groups –the Amish in Pennsylvania, the Russian German Mennonites in Kansas- is purely testimonial.

    One character who seems to have contributed most to the national awakening was Napoleon, with his willingness to create conditions for select minorities, such as the peculiar example of Illyria within the Balkans (v Kohn, Nationalism. Its meaning and History, 1965). Meanwhile, the Magyars, after reaching the maximum degree of autonomy in their land, were extremely active in the defense of their tongue against the German, to the point of making an English observer exclaim: “Non-Magyar villagers feel like oxen before the courts in their own land” (Watson, Racial Problems in Hungary, 1908). In 1907 it was decreed that railway workers who could not speak Magyar were to be deprived of their jobs. Again Inglehart and Woodward argued that, as a result of the Magyarization of Hungary, Slovaks, Croats or Romanian children were forced to learn a language that was not theirs and, what is more, a high percentage of them remained un-schooled. One of the principles of social progress, -mobility- was ignored. The only way to unlock their situation was to admit the language that was pushed in from the centers of power.

    We need not bring more samples of the situation of languages and national symbols in the contemporary world. Everything is old, but it all looks new. We still believe in cooperative multilingualism and the inevitability of cultural blending; we even see as real the dream of symmetrical bilingualism. We do not accept forcible immersion in a regime of political monopoly, where options are unavailable, and hearkening to the reasoning of cultural and political elites, whose logo says: “My language and nothing else. If a second language is necessary, resort to English, which is more useful.”

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