Here English Well Speeched

Washington Times 10.12.99
Balint Vazsonyi

Trust an immigrant who speaks with an accent to complain about the speech pattern of others who grew up with a language other than English.

Writing a column on this topic has been on my mind for about a year, but all that time the warning of an inner voice has prevented implementation. I came close when explanation of a novel and highly complex security system in our building was entrusted to a young man who absolutely could not speak English. But last week, in transit to my designated gate at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, an announcement over the public address system silenced that inner voice, for better or for worse.

What was the announcer telling the traveling public? Well, this much seemed probable: someone was being called to go somewhere right away. Details were lost in the recesses between the announcer's larynx and collateral organs of verbal expression.

English, of course, is spoken by countless millions, and its varieties are legion. A significant proportion of English-speakers pronounce many, even most, vowels and consonants betraying instantly that their vocabulary had been acquired after the formation of natural speech patterns - possible only before the attainment of a certain age. While such a state of affairs customarily prompts an instant "where are you from?," it need not get in the way of successful communication with the natives.

In a country of immigrants, newcomers expect - and always have been afforded - time and patience to learn the ways of their chosen homeland, including the language. Americans are exceptionally generous about this, as they are about other aspects of sharing their riches, especially with those who show a desire to work hard and make their own contribution to the general welfare.

There used to be an unwritten contract at work. It said, earn a living by doing something others find useful enough so they will pay you for it. At first, it may be driving a cab or washing dishes. (Russian princes seemed to prefer the former, European intellectuals the latter.) Then if you want to move on to something different, acquire the skills, the knowledge, the expertise that will take you there.

Not any more.

People who simply cannot speak English in a way others can comprehend are routinely given jobs where verbal communication is the job, or where verbal communication is indispensable. Why?

Welcome to The World of Affirmative Action. No - I do not mean the measure many regarded a necessary and temporary correction on the heels of the Civil Rights legislation in the 1960's. I refer to a global attitude that seeks to redistribute everything, not merely people's property and earnings. In this world, accomplishments of one society are attributed to others "so they don't feel left out." In this world, everything is called a "culture," be it a Mozart Symphony or female genital mutilation. In this world, people are led to believe they can be literally anything and everything, whether they are suited to it or not.

In this world, jobs are increasingly given to persons clearly unqualified to perform them.

Like it or not, the practice originated in the Soviet Union. Persons of certain origins and of loyalty to the regime were placed in positions whether or not they qualified. The result was an increasing proportion of incompetent persons populating the landscape. Those of us who lived there suffered the consequences every day, which might explain my reaction now. But the seventy-plus years of the Soviet Union demonstrated the resulting atrophy for all to see.

In America, too, what a person is has come to trump what a person can do. Language may be the least of our problems when it comes to incompetence, but language happens to be the topic here. "Rather uncharitable of you," I hear you say. "Mean-spirited," I hear you say. "How quickly you forget your own beginnings," I hear you say.

Perhaps. But the traditional requirement that people actually can do what they are being paid for makes everyone a winner. It has been key to America's success that people were expected and stretched to achieve their best. It used to start early. Before the general demise of standards, it was appetizing to watch high school students bag groceries. The care and professionalism in that humble trade was unique to America, and caused many a youngster to acquire good habits. Bagging properly is on its way out, along with expectations of intelligible speech.

Of course, foreign accents can be charming. Occasionally, especially in television sitcoms, it is entertaining to hear a Swedish "y" where "j" ought to be, and the Japanese confusion of "r" and "l" has given rise to many a funny story. Even Zsazsa Gabor's open Hungarian vowels are fun in small installments.

But when information needs to be conveyed quickly and accurately, one's sense of humor is rarely engaged. Speaking of airports, "go gay fy" will not do when there are seconds left to make it to gate five. Sometimes I wish there were large signs at all points of entry to the United States, proclaiming "Welcome to America where we do pronounce consonants at the end of words!"