The Destructive Tolerance of Babel

Once the outline of this essay emerged in my mind it took only seconds to register an irony connected to the project. It so happens that I spent five longer episodes of my life in different countries. In all these cases the “family language” was not that of the surrounding majority. For instance, in Hungary we spoke French and German. Subsequently, in America we used Hungarian. After my marriage, in San Diego, following an intermezzo in French, it was German. Every time we moved back to Europe we switched to English.

Consequently, thanks to being disadvantaged by Affirmative Action, the children grew up in Switzerland but with English. This makes them to be probably the only native speakers that had a “foreign” accent put into their cradle. The drawl is a consequence of a long story. Their dad learned much of his English while watching Bill Buckley’s “Firing Line.” (They also had wrestling on KTLA Channel 5 at the same time but in the end the “man from Yale” won.) Mr. Buckley inculcated in me a love for words even though their pronunciation suffered from some studied neglect. This was no accident: the females who considered accents to be cute made my strange way to speaking into a rewarding asset. The main beneficiary is my son who as a Science PhD and now an executive is thankful for his special skill. The more so as after a stint with an American consulting firm, he is now retained by a local global business whose corporate leadership’s working language is English.

One more anecdotal and personalized item will finish this account about language, identity and the relationship to society. Long ago, that is in an era that pre-dated the invention of PC, given her impaired health, my mother needed help. She got a Spanish-speaking woman to do some of the chores. The arrangement proved to be of short duration. The first day they had a spat. The help began to talk about “aqua.” According to her rendition, my mother told her, “no aqua.” There is only “w-a-t-e-r” here. Try to say WATER! The woman stood by her “aqua” refused “water” and thus the relationship was terminated.

English was the language of the country of our choice and my mother felt it was incumbent upon those living there to master it. In the family we were in agreement that, while a command and regular usage of foreign languages was to be recommended, in the public area English had to rule. This is much more than the result of a personal preference (thank you, Mr. Buckley!) for English. Due to its equally large treasure of words, Magyar happens to as nimble as English is. I have greatly enjoyed the years after 1989 when I published regularly in several Hungarian publications. I also have a long record in German which is a good tool to deal with emotions but tends to weaken the clarity of the message it carries.

It is not an accident but the upshot of conscious reflection that, when we lived in the US, we have voted for every “English Only” initiative we could support. I swear on the life of my extra “home made” Russian keyboard connected to this computer that this vigorous defense of English is not the reaction of the “linguistically challenged.” There are very good reasons for advocating an “English First” policy.

To begin with let us take the practical level. English is excellently suited for the role of connecting people. This is true within countries (USA, India) and globally too, because rudimentary English is, regardless of its odd spelling rules, easy to learn. This, and not the global political-economic-science dominance of the Anglo-Saxons alone explains the language’s success. Every kid in the country with four languages where I reside loves to learn English – and hates compulsory German and French. No wonder. When I was a young man in Hungary, after about six weeks of learning English against the will of my Communist government, I could sort of read an (illegally acquired) American paper. (This makes me appear to be smarter than I am: if you know German and French you are a step away from being able to handle English.)

Even if the foregoing would not be true, the political and social reasons for “English First” remain compelling. If you want to fight poverty at the source then everybody’s command of English must be at a high level. “Special English” and rudimentary English preclude legitimate careers. When the proficiency acquired in another language (abroad) can not be applied on account of linguistic incompetence, the skill will be lost as its application will, as a general rule, hinge upon good English. Bilingual education is a good idea. However, it can produce negative results if it becomes an excuse to avoid learning the language of the majority competently. Lastly, English also happens to be the common language of all those whose mother tongue is not English.

Therefore, after a decent interval in the United States, not speaking English is not to be regarded as a misfortune capriciously inflicted by a cruel nature. Much rather it is a sign of underperformance and dereliction of duty. That deserves “spanking” and not the kind of aid civilized society extends to the handicapped and to the victims of accidents. The consequences of inadequate English (lack of social mobility) do not deserve society’s support; money or preferential treatment in hiring and admission to college. Needless to say, it is difficult to see why US voters’ pamphlets and driver exams are available in translation. It seems that if you are unable to handle these tasks in English then you are perhaps a suitable “subject” but not an informed and informable “citizen.”

The most compelling argument for protecting the common language is political. America’s ability to escape the problems – often including the demise – of multi-national states in Europe has much to do with having a common language. This and a simple set of common ideals – as formulated by the American Constitution – created a common identity for what otherwise would have been an ethnically diverse and correspondingly endangered tottering country. The special characteristic of this “Americanism” is that (till now) diversity, whether ethnic or religious, a variety of social groupings and an emphasis on individualism were possible because of the umbrella of a common language and social creed.

It is incumbent upon immigrants not to attempt to smuggle across the border the conditions which they allege to have fled from. True, poverty might “pay better” in the US than in many other places. Yet, no one who moves to America has been asked to come and no one there is forcibly prevented from leaving if dissatisfied. The implication is that entrants have accepted by that act the “American order” and the laws of the country they chose. Now, this “American order” expects one to want to better oneself and to participate in and contribute to the commonwealth. Any person or group planning to settle in the USA should be willing to accept the way of life of the “hosts”. It is neither reasonable nor legitimate to insist on continuing to live – and to speak – as before immigration. Indeed, these things could be best done “at home.” What America does not need is new nations appearing with their own laws and languages within her body politic. Allowing this is not tolerance but the incremental suicide of a system that has worked excellently for generations for millions who wanted the right thing.

In the Seventies there used to be bumper sticker that told “America, love it or leave it.” France is one of the countries around here that is challenged by immigrants that insist on sharing the wealth while continuing to live by the rules of their failed tradition. Suddenly the translated version of “love it or leave it” is becoming a popular phrase in France. Perhaps the time has come to reprint those old stickers Stateside, too.


In Hungary we spoke French and German because of my grandmother. She and my grandfather got to know each other while using French. So it became their language. She learned Hungarian fluently, even liked the language, but in Hungarian "she was not really herself." During the Nazi/Arrow Cross era in Hungary, my father and grandfather held their political discussions in ancient Greek or Latin. The reason: anyone competent in those languages was not likely to send you to your death by denouncing you. Why German/French or Hungarian in the US and English in Europe? Tradition, commitment to a cause (the revolution of 1956), later wanting  to give our children a head start, all played a role.   

@flynn: In Flagstaff,

@flynn: In Flagstaff, Arizona, which is "Indian Country" in the USA, I saw a bumper sticker saying "America -- Love it or Give it Back".

Handlery's post confirms my impression that the Hungarians and the Dutch are the linguists of the world. I wish he had told us why his family always chose to speak at home a language different from the majority language of the country of residence.

One Language, One Flag

I might also add that in addition to immigrants learning (and using) English in America, that they should also honor the American flag. If they do not, then they should go back to the country that they came from. In other words, yes, love it or leave it!!!