The Importance of Speaking English
Scripps-Howard News Service 7.24.02
The Brown County Board of Supervisors in Green Bay, Wisconsin,
home of the Packers, has declared English as the official language
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
"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
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
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
Or he would have long gone back to Hmong-land.