The Importance of Speaking English

Scripps-Howard News Service 7.24.02
Balint Vazsonyi

The Brown County Board of Supervisors in Green Bay, Wisconsin, home of the Packers, has declared English as the official language of government.

There are many ways to look at the same thing, and our land is famous for the freedom of doing so. Alas, the right to free speech does not come with guarantees of rational thought, or even the assumption that people will necessarily speak the truth.

Jodi Wilgoren, writing in the New York Times, and Karl Txajkaug Thoj, director of the Hmong Association of Green Bay, are competing for my "Most Inappropriate Response" prize this week. "The movement [adopting English as the official language] has gained strength in recent years as part of a backlash against growing numbers of immigrants," writes Wilgoren.


What has language to do with numbers? Does Jodi Wilgoren perhaps require some instruction in English? Does the New York Times lack the editorial capacity to point out to a - presumed - novice that apples and oranges are being mixed here?

And it's that kind of mindless, inflammatory statement that encourages Thoj to characterize the resolution as if saying to his community, "You're not important, forget about your culture, forget about being different." Yet Thoj's utterance is such a mixture of misrepresentation, daftness, and arrogance that he must remain in contention for the aforementioned prize. The arrogance refers to the implied proposition whereby Brown County, Wisconsin, having granted refuge and the opportunity of millennia to the Hmong, ought to abandon its ways and adopt those of the newcomers.

Which takes us back to Wilgoren. There is "backlash," but it has nothing to do with the numbers of immigrants and everything to do with the assault on America's traditions, unity, and very nature. The number of immigrants is relevant only to the extent that those who wish fundamentally to alter this country are using the numbers for justification.

For someone who grew up in Hungary and arrived here at the age of 22 with "thank you," as the extent of my English, you will find me a rather sanguine representative for the importance of speaking English. (Actually, "thank you" may be a useful addition to Thoj's vocabulary.) The reasons go back a long way.

I was 8 when Nazi Germany occupied Hungary, 13 when Communist Russia took absolute control of life there. There were many similarities between the two, some of the terror personnel were even identical. But the basic sameness of Nazism and Communism became clear to me when, with a start, I remembered their respective first measures upon taking over the country.

Instantly prohibited was any contact with the English-speaking world. Listening to an English-speaking broadcast would land one in jail more certainly than serious civil crime. Target practice from age 14 upwards meant shooting at images of the current American president.

"If their chief enemy is the same," I reasoned, "then their underlying philosophy must be the same." Thus the conventional wisdom of Nazis on the Right, Communists on the Left, and America in the middle was rather short-lived for someone of my experience. More realistic was the image of Nazis and Communists on one side, the English-speaking world on the other.

Such thoughts are highly relevant if we want to comprehend the news from Wisconsin. Probably all Wilgoren and Thoj do is to repeat standard slogans without thinking. But attempting to reduce the presence, and key role, of English is part of a long-standing, serious political agenda.

Since the number of real Nazis or Communists in America is close to insignificant, those persuaded to advocate bilingualism or multilingualism ought to ask themselves whose agenda they had been recruited to promote.

If properly examined, it will become clear that the purpose is not to "make life easier for immigrants." Nor is the purpose "diversity." The purpose is to do away with the powerful concepts which English, and English alone, transmits across generations, across the globe. No other language, certainly not Spanish - the primary weapon in this battle - can imbue a person with a sense of fairness, because no other language has that word. It's impossible to translate legal concepts such as "reasonable doubt," or "unreasonable searches and seizures," because it never occurred to possessors of power in the countries from which we immigrants come to behave reasonably.

When the din dies down, Karl Txajkaug Thoj knows best that, after an evening of Hmong dances, his people need the full benefit of English-speaking traditions.

Or he would have long gone back to Hmong-land.