What Happens If America Goes Bilingual?
The language issue is raised by a scholarly retired senior European diplomat who read my Fourth of July column and wrote:
Regarding your definition of what makes a country a country: does Switzerland (4 official languages), or, for that matter, Belgium (3 official languages and as many official religions), qualify as a country? Or, indeed, Spain, where both Catalan and Basque are officially spoken? Or France, where Breton has been spoken since the 4th century, as well as Catalan and Basque? Or Ireland, where both English and Gaelic have an official status? Or the UK which has Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish and a plethora of hardly mutually understandable dialects?
I had written: “What is it that makes a country a country? Probably at least such aspects as a common language, a common or at least dominant religion, a common culture, common traditions, and geographical boundaries.”
The diplomat’s question prompts two observations.
First: There’s a sense in which Switzerland (population 8.5 million), isn’t really a country at all: it’s a federation. It isn’t very big, it isn’t very powerful, and it has only a small, means-tested welfare program (which therefore engenders little dissent). It’s not a city on a hill, and it doesn’t win World Wars or Cold Wars. It can get away with having several languages.
Belgium (population 11 million) is also a small operation. Spain (population 47 million) has several languages, but Spanish is the first language of at least 72 percent of the population and probably the other 28 percent speak it fluently. In Ireland, 94 percent of the people speak English. In the UK, 98 percent of the people speak English.
So a general rule might be that a powerful country (which because of its power has lots of contentious political issues) has to have a dominant language.
Language may be important in important countries. In the US, English is spoken by about 230 million people, Spanish by 40 million. But there’s a problem in the US—actually there are three.
The first is that many of the Spanish-speaking people are illegal immigrants. The count of illegals varies, but a recent Yale study, which apparently surprised the authors themselves, estimated that there are 22.1 million illegal aliens (“undocumented immigrants” in snowflakeese) in the United States. It’s a good bet that most of those illegals are poor and not proficient in English, and not likely to become proficient, and most of them probably live in the shadows. That is a problem.
A second problem is that many of the Mexicans in the US, whether citizens or not, remain Mexican enough to send billions of dollars in “remittances” back to their relatives in Mexico—about $25 billion in 2016. That is money not invested in their US communities. The French speakers in Switzerland aren’t sending money back to relatives in France.
A third problem is that many Mexicans don’t even think of themselves as Americans: they remain Mexicans—they even vote in Mexican elections. And some of them even have dreams of reuniting with Mexico the territories lost in the Mexican–American war (1846–1848)! They don’t call it Mexifornia for nothing.
So, yes, a common language is important. Currently, America seems to be coming apart: the Left is doing its best to drive a wedge between regular Americans and the immigrant (and illegal immigrant) communities. The Left promotes open borders (if they’re open, are they really borders?), amnesty for illegals, and even voting by illegals.
That’s a recipe for unrest—unrest that will redefine the country. Masses of non-English speaking people (many of them shadow dwellers) are unlikely to know, understand, appreciate, and internalize our customs—the Anglophone customs and rules for civilization that have built the best and freest society the earth has ever known—rules that didn’t just fall from the sky.
Another correspondent wrote:
And so, we here on the Southern tip of the dark continent of Africa, who put our blood and sweat into transforming jungles into cities, see our civilised ideals being whittled away under the pressure of the majority voters who pretend to yearn for tribalism to the uninformed masses in the name of “decolonialisation,” but who simultaneously and shamelessly enjoy the benefits of a Westernised, free market society, as if those just fell from the sky ….
Without getting into the politics of South Africa’s past, it seems fair to say that some customs are better than others, and that law and order, of the kind the Anglophone countries vouchsafe to their citizens, are a sine qua non for the kind of civilized living we in America are used to, precisely the kind of living that attracts immigrants to America. But if they are poor, non-English speaking, and uneducated, they will not understand the magic that produces our way of life. And then the socialist Democrats—the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—will tempt them with the black magic of redistribution. Redistribution works—once. But what do you do for an encore? What the rich will do is hightail it to Switzerland where English will displace Italian as the third language.
It may be possible for America to become a bilingual country and still preserve the Anglophone way of life. But we don’t know. And the more the other language is Spanish, and the more its speakers are tied, emotionally and financially, to a different country, which they consider their home country, and the more they consider the United States to be a hostile power occupying “their” land, the less likely it seems that bilingualism will serve America well.
Daniel Oliver is Chairman of the Board of the Education and Research Institute and a Director of Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco. In addition to serving as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Reagan, he was Executive Editor and subsequently Chairman of the Board of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.
Email Daniel Oliver at [email protected]