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.