August 16 • 03:19 PM

How many languages required?

September 26, 2007
Of late I have gotten the impression that English is a second language in the United States. This has been happening for some time now and I am sure most of you are quite familiar with these examples.

The other day I pulled out the instructions for my electric razor so I could see where to order a replacement part and discovered that the manual was printed both in French and English. Other manuals I have are printed in French, Spanish and English. Going to the bank I must now select English in order to complete my ATM transactions. Finally when I call a company I must not only wade through a long list of menu choices but also hear some of them in Spanish first before I can talk to a live human being who might be located in India and may or may not be understood because of the accent.

Now while I understand businesses look upon language choice as service to their clientele, I'm not too keen on the idea of having to make an affirmative choice for English since English is the language spoken by the majority of people in this country. The multiple printing of instructions in a manual I suppose I will have to live with although it is still a pain in the neck to wade through, but that's another story since I am convinced those who write technical manuals not only do not speak English but have never heard of simple declarative sentences and assume we are all graduates of MIT.

I'm not sure I want English or any language adopted as our official language. One presidential candidate has gone so far as to propose Spanish be recognized as our second language and while a certain amount of accommodation might be made to those not understanding English, how many languages are we going to reprint official government forms in before the purveyors of political correctness are satisfied? After all, English is still our primary language.

Now I can just see some of my liberal friends begin to roll their eyes and suggest that I've finally sold out to the knuckle dragging social Neanderthal crowd, but I haven't, at least not yet. Seems to me at one time immigrants came to the country and learned the language and got along very nicely. It wasn't easy but it was done.

I am not saying one should not take pride in one's native tongue for we are, after all, a nation of immigrants. America is a melting pot and those who come to America sometimes end up in enclaves where they never have to learn English at all, thus defeating the concept.

Insofar as language is concerned I think we all need to stir that pot now and then and try to balance things out a bit before we end up printing our road signs in twenty different dialects and sub- tongues, our manuals become the size of the Manhattan telephone directory and phone menus take several years to wade through.

In any case another group which seems not able to understand our mother tongue are academics. As a former college professor I am probably as guilty as anybody else in this regard since those of us in education seem to thrive on jargon. Scholarly style seems to dictate at least a dozen words are necessary when one or two will do, and long obscure words are preferable to a shorter concise vocabulary.

Now I must admit a certain amount of jargon is necessary in any profession but when professionals make it difficult for ordinary people to understand them all we end up doing is alienating people and furthering elitism.

Politicians of course speak only in euphemisms and lawyers always seem to have an asterisk attached to whatever they say leading you to the fine print.

I'm not even sure just what language teenagers converse in, all I know is that every sentence seems to begin with the word "like" and most often is delivered against a background of what might charitably be called music and played at a decibel level loud enough to shatter the rafters of the universe. I could go on but then somebody might accuse me of making a tautological redundancy amounting to a pleonasm. Oh, oh! Sorry about that.

Well, I guess old habits are hard to break.

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