‘English Only’ is a Distraction, Not a Solution

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission recently filed a complaint against the Albertsons supermarket chain in San Diego for requiring its employees, including Latinos, to speak exclusively in English while at work.

Some in the mainstream media, led by Newsweek and the California talk show host Ethan Bearman, have cheered on the Civil Rights Commission and lamented the “hostile work environment” that Albertsons has created for Latino employees. Fox News primetime host Tucker Carlson has entered the fray on the other side to insist that the San Diego supermarket has every right to specify work conditions for its employees. According to Carlson, it’s no business of the federal government to monitor every commercial relation in this country, much less assess whether they conform to the latest version of political correctness. This, Tucker maintains, is a form of government overreach that is incompatible with a free society. Unfortunately, we’ve already surrendered to the Deep State the freedom in question, and there may be no way of getting it back except possibly through long and tedious litigation.

But Carlson offers a second reason that makes far less sense to me. He suggests that Albertsons supermarket and others that share its position on “English only” are helping to “unify” our country. The fact that some in this land are not encouraged to speak English is for Carlson “a core weakness.” Treating English as an “official language,” even when it’s not, will make us more cohesive as a nation.

Allow me to challenge this. First, although Carlson’s contention was true at one time, it isn’t any longer, at least not in the United States. In the 19th century, language was viewed as an essential touchstone of national identity. European peoples striving for independence would point to their continuing use of a particular tongue as proof of their historic identity as a people. The Zionists chose Hebrew as the national language for their Jewish homeland because ancient Jews spoke that Semitic tongue. Of course, linguistic nationalism had other unifying factors, like shared history and ethnicity, which were also seen by those demanding national autonomy as essential to their identity.

But what was true for Poles, Germans, and Lithuanians in 1820, and for Jews in 1920, no longer applies to most English speakers. Today, English is a universal language, learned because of its commercial value and because it’s relatively easy to pick up, quite independently of any national culture. If the Latinos who work at Albertsons are forced to chat in English, it’s unlikely to lead them into embracing an Anglophone literary heritage going back to Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and William Faulkner. Students whom I taught in college mumbled to each other in something like American-English but rarely showed the slightest interest in our Anglo-American literary or cultural heritage. I also didn’t espy many of them delving into the Federalist Papers as a result of their ability to speak (usually quite ungrammatically) the language of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay.

Further, groups or individuals that hold radically divergent views on political and moral questions are rarely brought together by the fact that they converse in English (or some approximation thereof). Carlson provides no evidence for his contention, which he regards, strangely enough, as self-evident. If an alt-right blogger and a representative of Black Lives Matter engaged in a discussion (assuming this were possible), would their mutual intelligibility create a sense of brotherhood? In all probability their capacity to understand each other would make them hate each other even more. Like religion, language may unite, but where there is no deeper source of unity, it can also cause further division.

It seems foolish to believe that as soon as we can get people on the same page linguistically, they’ll warm to each other. This was the illusion of the Hapsburg Empire in the late 19th century, whose leaders imagined that if their Slavic subjects could be made to learn German, they would come to accept imperial rule. Many Hapsburg subjects did learn German but then used their acquired language to scream at each other and their rulers in the Austrian Imperial Diet. Also, not incidentally, IRA operatives who blew up the British spoke exemplary English.

It also seems unwise to urge people who are notoriously ignorant of foreign languages to discourage their use. Needless to say, I’m not defending the indefensible, which in this case is the boondoggle of teaching English as a second language in public schools and the effort made by the left to treat beneficiaries of multicultural favoritism as exempt from learning English. Nor would I deny the practical benefit of knowing English in the United States, even for those who never dip into our political and literary classics. What I am saying is that Americans would do well to study foreign languages instead of frowning upon their use. It also wouldn’t hurt (or diminish our alleged exceptionalism) if American leaders learned other world languages. One should applaud the diligence exhibited by French President Emmanuel Macron in expressing himself in English (even with his occasional gaffes).

Finally, it can be annoying to listen to people trying to convey an underlying message or motive praise English as a source of national unity. I happen to share with the left the view that much of the talk about the need to use English conceals other attitudes that some (although not Tucker Carlson) don’t want to betray. Unity is often the least of their concerns.

It is true that many Americans are worrying about the continuing demographic and cultural transformation of their country. Some who want everyone to “please speak English only” have had it with the cult of diversity and the accompanying disparagement of our Euro-American traditions. I’m all for holding more public conversations centered on such issues. But it’s far more profitable to hold conversations than worry about someone speaking Spanish at a grocery store in San Diego.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.