Linguistically Challenged In California

In the last 18 months or so the state of California–of all places–has twice attempted to play the role of knight errant in defense of the English language.

First, came the statewide alarmist response to the Oakland school board’s attempt to have Ebonics, or black English, declared an official language. “Teach them English” was the immediate retort. “We can’t afford to have valuable instructional time given over to teaching dubious languages.”

Most recently the good people of the Golden State approved Proposition 227, severely curtailing bilingual education programs in the state’s public schools.

I’m all for good English, but you know, like, you know, like I mean, like c’mon people, we’re talking about California, where English hasn’t been spoken in recent memory.

Please be assured, I intend no disrespect to California by saying this. I’ve lived there and loved it. That being said, though, I’ve never harbored the belief that anyone there speaks English for more than two or three sentences at a stretch. Mostly they speak something else, which I hesitate to call Californian, out of fear of committing some linguistic gaffe of immense proportions.

Nonetheless, whatever one calls their language, Californians speak it with great zest; they even speak several dialects of it, which can make communication from region to region a very dicey proposition. For example, once when driving along the San Diego freeway, I heard the radio warn of a “SIG alert” somewhere in the bright distance up ahead. Turning to my native informants I asked for a translation, and guess what? They hadn’t a clue–and they practically lived on the freeways. Ignorantly, we drove on, alerted to uninterpretable dangers, which, thankfully, we never encountered.

But to return to Proposition 227, I’m just wondering how they are going to enforce the rule requiring students to complete a year-long immersion course in intensive English language classes. Everyone know there’s not enough good English in the state to wet the feet of a few hundred students for five minutes let along dunk thousands of them in it for a full year. The state’s water shortage pales in comparison.

Make no mistake about it: The passage of Proposition 227 is merely the first glimmering of the social unrest that will attend California’s English language shortage. Given the state’s mean-spirited reaction to the discovery that its students aren’t learning English, imagine what we’re in for when the people who voted for Proposition 227 find out that they themselves don’t know their language either.

Without bilingual education to blame for their linguistic inadequacies, who knows what fiendish evil Californians will target with the next round of ballot initiatives? Foreign language films? Italian restaurants? French poodles?

Preparing for this crisis should be a national priority. California’s prominence in the global mass entertainment industry is such that we as a nation can ill afford to have the citizens of our most visible state laboring under the illusion that they are currently speaking English, or–worst of all–presuming that they can teach it to others.

Of course, California could import its English by hiring teachers from elsewhere, but this will never fly given the anti-immigrant sentiment now gripping Shangri-La. In fact, the only solution might be to pass federal legislation requiring all Californians to participate in a domestic version of a year abroad, where they would have to travel to some other state in order to learn English, and, you know, soak up a little U.S. culture. This way when they get around to making all the films, commercials and television programs that they insist on flooding the country with, we might not find ourselves awash in linguistic barbarisms and inarticulate grunts.

The one thing that gives me pause about this solution, though, is figuring out where we would send Californians to get their English. Chicago? Birmingham? Piscataway? You can see the problem. It has, in fact, loomed on the horizon for sometime now. At the beginning of this century, the novelist Henry James, appalled by the language he encountered in the nation’s newspapers and schoolyards (he didn’t even have bilingual education to kick around) exhorted the graduates of Bryn Mawr College to become missionaries on behalf of the English language. The young ladies, of course, were well overmatched, as James clearly knew. English has never had a chance in the good ol’ USA. And as for James? He ultimately adopted British citizenship.

Kenneth Warren is an associate professor of English at the University of Chicago and author of “Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism.”

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