Thursday, June 8, 2006
How many of us can still diagram a sentence?
All this talk about making immigrants pass an English test is beginning to make me nervous. What if everybody had to pass an English test to be a citizen and vote? Remember Mrs. O’Dell who taught English at Holly High. She was one of my favorite church members. I loved Mrs. O’Dell, but what if I had to diagram a sentence on the big chalkboard in her classroom? I am not sure I could do it now. I am all for English, but what if the President and Congress had to pass an English test. I am not sure I could.
The truth is that all but the most elderly of immigrants can’t learn English fast enough. They can hardly wait. Wherever American television and popular music has gone, the world’s youth are learning English. I guarantee you that in the poorest third world countries words like Nike and Adidas are understood and identified with America.
Robert MacNeil, formerly of the McNeil-Lehrer Report on PBS, along with two other scholars, Robert McCrum and William Cran, wrote a wonderful book, “The Story of English,” as a companion to a fine PBS series shown several years ago. The book and the videos of the PBS program can still be purchased and I commend them to everyone.
This book traces the development of English and its spread around the world, so that it is now the most widely understood language on Earth. English has largely erased Babel’s confusion. It is the language of scholars, of pop culture, and most importantly, of computers. In fact, small countries like Denmark or Sweden, and even large countries like France, are lamenting the fact that their languages are being corrupted by the importation of so many English expressions.
English is one of the most adaptable and diverse languages. It has the largest vocabulary of any language ever spoken. So any student from another culture that wishes to read widely quickly realizes that he or she must learn English.
In fact, English is taught in the schools of almost every major foreign country from Japan and China to Korea, India, all the African countries, and South America. Even our enemies realize they must speak English.
The United States, by contrast, is remarkably unfamiliar with other languages. Only about 10 percent of our people can speak another language. Few students in our schools make any meaningful study of a foreign language. In this respect we stand out against all the other educated cultures of the earth. It is not uncommon for children in Europe, for example, to know three or four different languages — one of these always being English. American tourists can travel the earth and always know that someone can communicate with us — often using better English than we speak among ourselves here at home.
But if a visitor from a foreign land comes to America — watch out. How many of you can converse in French or German or Japanese — just to name three of the most important languages to our country’s international trade and commerce.
Many linguists predict that the world will become in the next hundred years a virtually “English-only” community of nations. People will retain their native tongues for communication within the family and among friends, but English as a second language is becoming a near-universal phenomenon.
My point is that most all new arrivals in America will learn our language as soon as they possibly can. There is no need for the government to enforce punitive policies to encourage this. In fact, the question could be asked why the same people who wish to make English a requirement consistently vote against appropriations for schools and programs that would educate the poor in our country.
I am all for securing our borders. Any solution of the illegal immigration situation must start here. We have laws on the books — so new laws really are not necessary. Why do the powers that be not enforce the laws we have?
I may be a bit sensitive on the issue. You see, my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was an “illegal immigrant.” Depending on which version you read of the story that has come through the family, Great-great-grandfather either stowed away on a ship bound for America from Scotland or was kidnapped on the shores of Britain and served here for seven years as an indentured servant to a physician in Maryland.
That branch of the family had no problem because they spoke the right language. Mother’s side, however, had more difficulties. They came legally, through Ellis Island, but Grandmother told how their house was watched during World War I because her family was German. Their church in Missouri even conducted services in German. I still have Grandmother’s confirmation certificate, beautifully engraved in German. I cannot read a word of it.
Even more to the point, my late uncle was denied the presidency of a major university because of a whispering campaign that linked him to our Jewish kin. I personally have never felt the ugly hand of discrimination. But I have been close to bigotry, and there is an ugliness that masquerades under the name of “traditional values” in our country just now. We Southerners have been used by politicians of demagoguery long enough that we ought not to keep falling for that kind of cynical vote-getting.
If we want America to remain the envy of the world, then we need to live up to the ideals that made other people want to come here. We are told the Hispanic people do the jobs that Americans will not. Why is it that we look down on those who are willing to do this menial labor we consider ourselves “too good” to undertake?
Besides — the Indians were here first. And, as far as Europeans are concerned, as I recall, it was Christopher Columbus who “discovered” this hemisphere in 1492. Maybe, by rights, those folks ought to determine what language is spoken in this land. After all, they got here first.
I mention these things in the “preacher’s corner” only because God takes the long view of things. And the Bible says to show kindness “to the stranger within your gates.” In fact — if we are to believe Jesus — it is precisely by such things that we are judged worthy of heaven. Jesus did not say if the Good Samaritan could speak Hebrew. But he showed kindness to the Jewish traveler in his land.
And Jesus told us to treat all such people — even Samaritans — as our neighbors. Now, how are we to be Christian in this great, rich country in which we live?
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