While the U.S. contemplates making English either its official or its national language, continues to discourage immigrants from speaking their own native languages, and actively encourages Americans to remain resolutely monolingual, the army has been quietly teaching strategic foreign languages to key personnel on a strictly need-to-know basis.
Since 1776 the American military has defended the nation against all enemies foreign and domestic, and since 1941, when it began secretly teaching Japanese to U.S. soldiers, most of them of Japanese ancestry, it has been defending us against all languages foreign and domestic as well.
The army’s elite Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California, the self-proclaimed “language capital of the world,” now teaches 24 key languages to military and other government personnel, condensing four years of study into freeze-dried packets of “languages-ready-to-speak” that take just six to 18 months. So willing is the army to do the talking for us that the motto of its Farsi program is, “We speak Farsi so you don’t have to.”
[Defense Language Institute t-shirt, “We speak Farsi so you don’t have to” -- www.dli-alumni.org]
This DLI t-shirt reassures Americans that a small but dedicated army of translators stands between us and a potential Iranian invasion. There’s a long tradition of military translators who serve and protect. In 1066 a troop of English word wranglers carried a banner proclaiming, “We speke Frenche so yeow don’t haue to” as they drew a line in the sand at the Battle of Hastings, and while the French troops were slinging arrows, the British got down to the business of diagramming sentences. In case you forgot, the French won that battle, pillaged the language, and the defeated English suddenly found themselves translating instead of wrangling, and eating french fries instead of freedom fries. So much for campaign slogans.
An Iranian invasion may be little more than a gleam in an ayatollah’s eye, but the t-shirt’s other meaning seems a better fit for the American linguistic landscape. Americans just don’t speak foreign languages, and the slogan reminds us that, in true capitalist fashion, if we need another language, we can just pay someone else to speak it for us.
It’s true that the British colonists brought English with them, but everybody else who migrated to America (including the Native Americans), fled here, or was dragged to the New World in chains, came speaking another language. Just as the French who practiced regime change in England in 1066 abandoned French for English as they settled in for the long haul, immigrants to the U.S. give up their language and adopt English. Switching to a new language is an individual process that depends on several factors, including age, opportunity, length of time in country, and degree of linguistic talent. But so far as the American experience goes, it’s also an inevitable process. Some make the transition quickly, while others take longer.
What suffers in the process that patriots call Americanization is our ability to use foreign languages when we need them. Whether we’re traveling abroad or trading, spying on our enemies or rebuilding their countries, catering to tourists, resettling immigrants and refugees, or just exercising our curiosity about other cultures, we’re no longer a nation of citizen linguists.
Instead, we’ve let ourselves become dependent on a professional language corps, many of whom are trained by the military. Not only don’t we have to speak Farsi to deal with those pesky Iranians and their nuclear build-up, the DLI also does the talking for us in Korean (so Kim Jong-il can watch dubbed M*A*S*H reruns), Chinese (so we can import more polymerized food and lead-painted toys), and French (you just never know when the French will invade again).
Our troops are also busily saving us from Dari, Pashto, Arabic and Spanish. But it turns out that, since the army can’t control our borders, Americans are actually being exposed to Spanish, often against their will.
[These patriotic Americans don’t want to hear Spanish spoken anywhere but Cancun]
But not to worry – Americans won’t have to give up their monolingual comfort zone. While the military can’t keep up with its foreign-language needs any more than it can keep up with the demand for body armor, our presidential candidates are throwing themselves into the breach. They’re helping our troops speak Spanish so we don’t have to.
Thanks to the army and our political leaders, real Americans don’t have to speak Spanish, Russian, Hmong, Tagalog, or Gujarathi to all those immigrants, foreign and domestic, who mow our lawns, staff our restaurants, change our bedpans, run our motels, perform delicate organ transplants, design our office complexes, program our computers, play in our orchestras, or, if we continue passing laws to make English the official language of what is already the world’s most monolingual country, defend us against pesky antidiscrimination lawsuits when we tell them they can’t use their language here.