There’s a growing, if underground, backlash against bilingualism in the United States, against the proliferation of directions and instructions in languages other than English, against ballots printed in Spanish, against ATMs with foreign language options. Yet, from what I’ve observed, while I do believe that the legal language of the United States is and should remain English, so many of those who demand action or legislation to reinforce this are missing the linguistic boat.
The United States is indeed a nation of immigrants, and all too many youngsters today seem to have lost some of the skills of their parents. For example, fewer and fewer of them can write adequately the language written and spoken by their parents. This wouldn’t be such a loss… except the language I’m talking about is English, American English in particular. And I’m also not talking about those young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I’m referring to the vast majority of white Caucasian high school graduates from “good” urban or suburban high schools.
This linguistically disadvantaged majority – and actual tests of proficiency in English reading, writing, and comprehension show clearly this lack of ability – does not know basic grammar, basic spelling, or the construction and use of their native tongue. This spills over into everything, from essays to business correspondence, from newspaper and magazine articles even to headlines, not to mention blogs and advertisements. The number and percentage of grammatical and spelling errors in publications has increased dramatically. I’ve gone back and checked older publications, and such lack of skill and care either didn’t exist or was caught by editors and proof-readers.
The same lack of precision in language permeates popular music – assuming one can even decipher the abysmal diction of most singers in order to suffer through grammatical inaccuracies and debasement of a once-proud language. In point of fact, it’s amazing to realize that the music once considered almost degraded and backwoods-derived – country music, to be exact – is perhaps the only form of current popular vocal music where the majority of the lyrics can actually be understood.
Yes… a small percentage of Americans continue to write well and skillfully, but that proportion is declining every year, paradoxically at a time when recent studies show that the mastery of language equates directly to the mastery of thought and ideas. Might it just be possible… just possibly… that the decline in the ability of Americans to articulate and understand the complexities of our society lies in the decline of their linguistic abilities? Mastery of language is not merely the knowledge of vocabulary, but the ability to construct sentences that are clear and logical, and to understand those that are logically complex. In short, clear thinking requires a good command of language, and there’s definitely a shortage of clear thinking today.
Why are simplistic political or commercial sound-bites so successful? Is it because the euphony of simplicity appeals so much more readily to those who are linguistically disadvantaged? Or because those whose language skills have atrophied or were never developed have difficulty in understanding anything more complex?
Whatever the reason, the English-only partisans seem unwilling and unable to understand that they’re well on the way to losing their battle… and they’re losing it from within.
While citing history is usually doomed to failure, because so few understand its parallels, or want to, I will point out that Latin was once the language that ruled the world. As it became debased, so did Rome… to the point where Latin is a dead language, and Italian bears but a passing resemblance to the language it replaced… and… oh… Italy couldn’t even reunite itself until more than 1,900 years after the death of Julius Caesar.