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speaking of speaking...
and do it in english, dammit!
by stella starr
1.25.02
news


Can the president speak French? Well, okay, not this president, who's far too open to speculation about his intellectual shortcomings. Say any president of the last century or so.
We expect to see hotshots from other nations come to visit and smile for the TV cameras, delivering a few cordial remarks in English. But not since Ronald Reagan's American-accented "novy no provy" (a brief Russian phrase meaning "trust but verify") early in the 1980s have we heard our own leader venture even a syllable of any other country's language. Can't their handlers teach them to say "We come bringing shiploads of cash as usual" in some other tongue? Can all those successful white men who majored in Poli Sci and law have graduated without taking the mandatory foreign-language classes we all choked over?
Maybe they're doing it on the sly. Maybe when they climb up onto a podium in Paris or a rock in Bosnia they launch into a long articulate address in the local lingo, thanking their hosts and commemorating the local equivalent of Girl Scout Cookie Week. But it's carefully edited out of news coverage if they've ever committed multilingualism.
I think they might occasionally do it. Come out and display a mastery of German, Danish, Afrikaans, Italian or Mandarin when they're in the appropriate country. It would surely be a sign of honor to the hosts.
But maybe we'd find it unsettling.
Would it shake our faith to see the most familiar face in America giving a speech in a foreign language? To hear the same voice that promised us health care and tax cuts chattering on in words even harder to understand than economic policy? Would it feel like a friend was talking about us, spilling our secrets to strangers in a secret code we don't get?
To the people over there, it would be simple courtesy to address them in their own tongue. But maybe to us it would seem just a little unfaithful, deceptive, unAmerican. It would be political suicide.
Sure, think of Sean Connery or Hugh Grant murmuring endearments in that delicious English accent. That's neat. But then there's Charo, that boom-boom
Nightclub Girl of the sixties, with her Tammy Faye mascara and stupid cutesy mangling of english in quips on the old Johnny Carson show. What a goofball. You wouldn't trust her to pick up a quart of buttermilk for your grandma.
And those are only foreign accents. You don't get on Letterman telling jokes in Portugese. Even an accent marks you as Not One of Us. It seems right somehow that Osama babbles in some nonsense language and those nice men at the State Department tell us what it means in words we can understand.
High-level handlers, who've gotten more skilful even as news media have become more tenacious, may just ensure that any clip of a U.S. representative speaking a foreign language is edited right out of any newscast we'll ever see or hear.
And maybe that's why, like the darn Canadian penny in your pocket, the subject keeps coming up of making the majority language of this nation a legally-required accomplishment.
Backers of english-only laws say if you come live here, you should speak the local language. Just like the Saudis expect our fighter pilots to don black bedsheets and flap around in a burka if they happen to be women and want to walk the native streets.
We're certain our forebears picked up American English like a pocketful of new dollars as soon as they became citizens. Surely, they shucked off the family values and customs and languages they grew up with in the old country, packing them away for future discovery as specials on the History Channel.
And though we expect housemaids, taxi drivers and children to be easily bilingual, it's an embarrassment among adults, like nose-picking in public. We all know homies who slip in and out of a southern accent after moving from the more civilized states, and an old college friend who could speak Ebonics at home but fine higher-education english for classroom occasions. But that's as close as a lot of us get to speaking in tongues, outside of our mother one.
There's a public-interest argument for mandatory english-only rules. After all, we've managed to accept wheelchair ramps, braille elevator buttons and even dollar-bill-sucking soda dispensers (after powerful business interests argued emphatically for years that creating a one-dollar coin would be unpatriotic, and expensive to retool the coin slots in vending machines), but it would cost SOMEONE too much to print drivers-license applications or tourism guides in Spanish, French or Hmong. It just ain't right to cater to those folks. Unless we're the visitors, in Montreal or Haiti or an Indian reservation.
What if a bunch of them got together and talked in a way we couldn't understand? When our own professors, executives or diplomats start going on about complicated policy issues or longterm fiscal strategies, we're free to ignore it and pick up a People Magazine instead. We just don't want to exert the mental muscles to understand what they're going on about. But someone flirting with a co-worker behind the counter at McDonalds in another language could be plotting against us, and it's rude. We shouldn't allow it. And certainly shouldn't hire a teacher to speak to six-year-olds in the language their folks taught them.
Let's be honest. Just like laws "defending" marriage and religion, mandatory english laws reflect a deep-seated feeling of insecurity. People who really believe in those things don't get all snappish about "defending" them, they just do them. They keep on getting hitched, teaching Sunday School, talking whatever brand of english their folks and the neighbors talk. People who think those institutions are weak, indefensible, or easily threatened get aggressive about protecting them. Like folks who don't feel real secure being a real man, and prove it by beating up girly men who won't resist that particular temptation. We won't go further there. It would take a few volumes.
If 265 million folks talk english and some others move in speaking something else, is it just a matter of a few years before they're all forcing us to jabber in Somali? Liars assume everyone else is lying. Cheaters know that everyone else is out to cheat them. People who want to force you to be just like them, right down to the way you talk -- they live in a scary world, don't they.
Humor me. I sought a bit of etymology.
Jingo may be a euphemism for "Jesus," as its first confirmed appearance is in an old English drinking song, in the phrase, "by Jingo!" Funny, how even Olde Anglo-Saxon is foreign to speakers of the correct english. It's the root of "jingoism," a word meaning supporting one's country with excessive, vociferous patriotism. A chauvinistic patriot.
I can't find the first name of poor old Monsieur Chauvin, a follower of Napoleon who even when the leader's cause was clearly doomed, became known for his excessive displays of loyalty and "making grotesque and threatening displays of attachment to his fallen chief." A researcher's note attached to the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary notes that "a generous belief in the greatness of one's country is not chauvinism," but rather that the term's reserved for one who is "wildly extravagant…fretful, and childish and silly."
The term came into common use again when women who got jobs and went on the pill started asking why they couldn't be people, like men were. They wanted sexual equality and found themselves facing men (and a few insecure women) who offered all kinds of silly excuses why laws should withold many rights from female citizens. When they pointed out that the ghost of old Chauvin was defending his spot as King of the Hill against all the icky girls with cooties, "chauvinist" became a humorous term.
It was used almost exactly the way we hear the term "politically correct" today, to sneer at opinions, and the persons who hold them, almost always of a more liberal persuasion. Apparently political correctness isn't like the real kind.
But just picture George W noting that elles seront inscrites dans l'histoire some important events. Wha'd he say? Picture him delivering a couple cheery paragraphs in some language that might as well be the barking of poodles, as far as you're concerned.
It would be the action of an accomplished world statesman. It'd be cool to see. It would be grounds for lynching. It just don't seem right.


ABOUT STELLA STARR

I listen. I write. I'm a private pilot, an informed citizen of the world, a lover, a parent of lovely babies, a humorous cynic, and I tell stories because telling them wonderfully and with style is one's only revenge against a cruel, sad, tedious, amazing and potentially influenceable world.

more about stella starr

IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...

my heart leaps
by stella starr
topic: news
published: 12.30.99





COMMENTS

tracey kelley
1.25.02 @ 10:04a

You wouldn't trust her to pick up a quart of buttermilk for your grandma HA!HA!

Didn't JFK bungle something in German during the Berlin wall days? He wanted to say something profound about needing to come together, but instead it came out "needing better oranges" - or something to that effect?



tracey kelley
1.25.02 @ 10:12a

I don't believe the American government has the funds to appropriately change all official forms, signs, buildings and programs into multi-linguistic materials. And frankly, I don't want my tax dollars paying for it. India alone has over 200 subcultures - so America should make sure to have documents available in each so those attending school here in the U.S. feel more at home? No. If I move to Spain, I will have to have an understanding of Spanish in order to function well in that society. I won't have to give up being American, but I will have to adapt.

Immigrants who move to America hoping for a better life should not expect it to be their own country, only bigger and with more welfare opportunities. English should be the official language in America, while America continues to allow those of many cultures to co-exist here peaceably. If they can't get a driver's license because the forms are in English, perhaps they shouldn't be driving, because they can't read the street signs, either.

mike julianelle
1.25.02 @ 10:17a

Wasn't the JFK comment something like "Ich bein berliner" which means "I am a donut" or something? Please correct me...

tracey kelley
1.25.02 @ 10:20a

See? I didn't know what it was, but I knew it had something to do with food.

adam kraemer
1.25.02 @ 10:59a

Okay - here's the deal: in German, "Ich been Berliner" means "I am from Berlin" - JFK was trying to say that all people of the free world were, in their hearts, like the free people on the Western side of Berlin. What he actually said was "Ich been ein Berliner."

The problem with that is that a Berliner is a type of German jelly donut. It's as if he went to Hamburg and said, "I am a hamburger." Or to Frankfurt and said, "I am a Frankfurter." In both cases, the correct German would have been, for example, "Ich been Hamburger," not "Ich been ein Hamburger." 'Course everyone cheered him anyway because he was Kennedy.

adam kraemer
1.25.02 @ 11:50a

If I may make a point, though. I don't think anyone expects tourists to be able to speak the local language - otherwise they wouldn't sell phrasebooks.

But in as far as English is the recognized world language (for example, all airline pilots in the world need to communicate in English), and most people learn it at some point in school, it is pretty rare to find someone who doesn't speak any.

That said, English is still the "official" language of the US, and we therefore expect our citizens to learn it. It's the language used in schools, ya know? I don't think it's fair to expect all immigrants to speak English when they get here, but just as if I were moving to, say, Portugal, I'd have to learn Portuguese, someone coming here really has no excuse not to be at least semi-fluent in the language his/her children will eventually be speaking. Our ancestors did it; why can't the current crop abide by the same rules?

matt morin
1.25.02 @ 2:39p

I completely agree. I think as long as people make an effort to speak the native language, then it's all good. I know when I was in France, if I made even a cursory attempt to speak French first, the people were a lot nicer and usually would help me out by replying in English. But if I just assumed they spoke English, that's when it got ugly.

adam kraemer
1.25.02 @ 4:31p

Yeah, I mean even rudimentary phrases - when I was in Moscow, I said "Spacebo"; when I was in Israel, I said "Todah"; when I was in London, I said "Cheers."

You go to a country, especially permanently, you should learn to speak the language of that country. We're just lucky that we live in a country where the language that's spoken is also at least semi-spoken everywhere else in the world.

stella starr
1.25.02 @ 5:29p

Guess my point was that we're more than lucky to live where our language is also pretty much the World language. (It used to french, but that was a long time ago) But while plenty of other countries mandate learning a "native" language, English and maybe a couple more, how many of us can speak more than English? Why are we content being so unfluent? And why did I miss the fact that both candidates gave speeches in Spanish in last year's presidential campaign, thereby shooting rather large holes in my premise? *sigh*

tracey kelley
1.28.02 @ 9:32a

Newsboy struck again, eh Stella? :)



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