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  • Note to English-only group that can't spell "conference": Presidential candidates in Kyrgyzstan have to pass a test in their official language. Could you pass a test in English?

    A major theme at Pat Buchanan's American Cause conference on "Building the New Majority" this week was making English official. Speaking under a  banner reading "2009 National Conferenece," white nationalist Peter Brimelow (editor of Vdare.com) charged that Democrats don't respect English: "You're going to find that the Obama administration is going to gradually institute institutional bilingualism in the country. It's going to be required to speak Spanish in key positions, the police force and so on." But it was Republicans who were unable to spell fairly simple English words.

    Conference is spelled

    Pat Buchanan and Peter Brimelow think that English should be the official language of the United States. Buchanan, a former presidential candidate, apparently didn't notice the misspelled "conferenece" on his conference's banner.

    Supporters of making English the official language of the United States might learn a lesson from the Kyrgyz Republic, whose constitution requires all government officials to speak Kyrgyz, the Central Asian country’s official language. Plus anyone who wants to be president of Kyrgyzstan first has to pass a Kyrgyz language test. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Seventy-eight percent of the presidential candidates failed the Kyrgyz test this year.

    You might expect leaders to speak their country’s language as a matter of course, but the language of government is often the language of conquerors, not natives. When Kyrgyzstan became part of the Russian Empire in 1876, and the Soviet Union in 1919, Russian became the language of opportunity: all the local apparatchiks learned Russian, sent their children to Russian schools, and stigmatized Kyrgyz as the language of ignorant peasants and nomads.

    With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyz became the official language of the new Kyrgyz Republic, but anyone who’s anyone in the country, whether capitalist or Bolshevik, still uses Russian for school, work, and play.

    Government officials also continue to use Russian, and while the nation’s laws must all be written in Kyrgyz, too often they are written in Russian first, then translated into the official language. In a further attempt to legislate Kyrgyz, starting with the 2000 election, parliament required all presidential candidates to demonstrate their Kyrgyz fluency. But because Russian remains so influential, taking a test in Kyrgyz can be problematic for the nation’s leaders.

    Presidential candidates take the Kyrgyz language test

    Kyrgyzstan’s got talent: some of the 22 would-be presidential candidates taking the Kyrgyz language test.

    The televised test is a linguistic triathlon requiring presidential candidates to speak, understand, and write Kyrgyz: give a fifteen-minute explanation of your platform; summarize a three-page Kyrgyz text that is read aloud to you; and write a three-page essay about your political policies in forty-five minutes.

    The test is a shibboleth: if your Kyrgyz is good enough to satisfy a majority of the nine judges, you’re allowed to run for president – even if you wind up running Kyrgyzstan in Russian. If you fail, you’re off the ballot. The constitution forbids discrimination “based upon lack of knowledge or command of the state language,” but that doesn’t apply to presidential candidates.

    Fans of the test praise its commitment to the language of independence. Critics charge that, because the Central Election Commission that administers the test reports directly to the president, the Kyrgyz test is rigged to keep the current president’s opponents out of power. Five of the twelve candidates failed the first test, in 2000, though incumbent president Askar Akayev, a fluent Russian speaker, passed easily and was re-elected.

    Only five of the twenty-two presidential wannabes passed this year’s test. This includes the current president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who grew up in Russia and is married to a Russian, and who barely passed the language test back in 2000. Bakiyev was appointed president in 2005 after Akayev fled the country during the “Tulip Revolution,” and to no one’s surprise, Pres. Bakiyev passed with flying colors when he took the Kyrgyz language test earlier this month. It seems the election commissioners are still eager to hold on to their jobs.

    Pres. Kurmanbek Bakiyev passed the language test 

    President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a native Russian speaker, is one of 5 presidential candidates to pass the Kyrgyz language test administered by the Central Election Commission, which incidentally reports directly to the president. The 17 who failed the test will not appear on the ballot. It’s rumored that some of them won’t appear anywhere again.

    Some Americans seem to feel that today, in the United States, the English language isn’t getting the respect that it deserves. They’d like to follow Kyrgyzstan’s example and make English America’s official language, because they think that if they don’t, everyone will wind up speaking Spanish or Chinese, or maybe even Kyrgyz.

    But English in America isn’t a native language. It’s not even native to England. Like Russian in Kyrgyzstan, English in these countries is a conqueror’s language. The Anglo-Saxons brought their language to Britain when they invaded the island in the mid-5th century BCE, ruling their new home in English, not Celtic.

    As for the United States, when English-speaking invaders – they called themselves settlers – came to the New World, they drove out Wampanoag, the language of the Indians who greeted the Pilgrims, as well as other Native American languages, not to mention Spanish and French, languages brought here by other European “settlers.” Later English speakers did their best to stifle German, Swedish, Polish, Italian, and Yiddish. And today they’re adding Chinese, Vietnamese, Hindi, Arabic, and even Russian to the language hit list.

    Supporters of official English might also think it would be good to follow another Kyrgyzstan example and make all future American presidents pass an English test. After all, the English-speaking ability of some presidents – Andrew Jackson, Calvin Coolidge, George W. Bush – has been called into question.

    Dan Quayle and the misspelled  

    Another argument against presidential language testing: Vice President Dan Quayle tells a student that he left the final ‘e’ off potato.

    Historically, though, even some English kings didn’t speak English. William, Duke of Normandy, brought French to England when he invaded the island in 1066. For the next 330 years England’s rulers spoke French, or were bilingual, but not until Henry IV was there another English king who could only speak English. Later still, George I, who was born in Germany and became king of England in 1714, spoke only German from the English throne, though he may eventually have learned a little English. Some political scholars have even gone so far as to argue that Barack Obama is the first truly English-speaking American president since John F. Kennedy.

    In the end, though, making English official and mandating English testing won’t protect English from the competition. That’s because, unlike Kyrgyzstan, in the United States there really isn’t any language competition. Yes, there are speakers of other languages in America. There are multilingual clothing labels and product instructions. And you sometimes have to press “1” for English on the phone. But in the free-market system of language, English has achieved without protective and restrictive legislation the kind of monopoly that countries like Kyrgyzstan, with their language laws and presidential language tests, only wish they could enforce for their official languages.

    On the other hand, considering the spelling ability of former Vice President Dan Quayle and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, maybe testing presidential candidates is a good idea after all.

joel@carsonparkdesign.com Jun 28, 2009 1:24 pm
Is "English only" sufficient? Shouldn't we bar Latin, Greek, and French imports?
rechercher01@yahoo.com Jun 28, 2009 2:17 pm

In regard to bi-lingualism, the problem is not having Spanish or any of hundreds of other languages spoken.  Rather – by way of real life example – the problem is that when I go to a bank in lower New York, I often find that Spanish is the primary language, and English is only a failing accommodation.  I don’t mind any accent as long as I can understand what is being said.  I also don’t mind grammatical faults (my writing and speaking are far from perfect, but I try).  What makes it difficult is the clear feeling that asking (or needing) to be spoken to in English is an annoyance, that I am the intruder.

When I travel elsewhere, I make an effort to at least learn “travel French” or “travel Italian” or even “travel Dutch.”  It’s not just a question of avoiding being the quintessential “ugly American.” It’s a function of respect and, most importantly, wanting to be understood to obtain the services I need in that moment.

I respect the point of your reductio ad absurdum:  there is no such thing as a native tongue, depending upon how far back you wish to go.  I suppose mana and ma seem to be universal as far back as one goes ... as well as ugg, uhh and unmnm.  Otherwise, there is a functionality to avoiding Babelism within borders.

When so many of our great-to-the-nth-power grandparents came here, they had to learn English.  That was part of becoming an American.  Yes, it was difficult, and some never did manage.  But they understood that they were “coming to the nuisance,” that they were coming to the opportunity and had to conform with at least a minimal way of behaving.  There are hundreds if not thousands of customs which are appropriate elsewhere which have no place here, even today (we might be better off if we incorporated some of them, it is true, but we are not perfect and that it not a requirement of the discussion).

In the end, those who would benefit the most from an English requirement would be those who are required to learn it:  nothing would (or could) require them to not speak their own language whenever appropriate, but at least there would be a uniform system of communication so we have at least a base of common understanding from which to operate.  From that launch point, we could go anywhere.  Literally, literarily, and figuratively.  I have often heard that English borrows from more languages and local dialects than any other language.  From what I have learned, this is true.  So it is clear that American English as a speakers group is not inherently linguistically bigoted or protective, as are the French.

I favor English as the requisite language, and, at the same time, favor teaching two, three or languages starting in Kindergarten or earlier.  It is idiocy to wait until later grades, as we are physically wired to learn many languages in our youth, and it gets more difficult as we get older.  If you want to solve the problem, don’t gloss over it, fix it at the root.  Reforming the teaching system is the root; everything else is just a paint job.  I realize this seems far afield from the original premise, but as with so many things, the problem is often not the apparent problem at hand, but the underlying problem ... or the problem underlying that.

anne@willapabay.org Jun 28, 2009 2:32 pm

I agree with what you say; English is my second language. Though these days Spanish is often a second choice all across the United States.

Everyone in my opinion should be required by law to have a second language. Native born and immigrant alike. Canada has the right Idea on that.


MakBeth19@yahoo.com Jun 29, 2009 3:05 am

You said "I favor English as the requisite language, and, at the same time, favor teaching two, three or languages starting in Kindergarten or earlier." and I wholeheartedly concur!!  I live in Hawai`i where almost everyone is of some variety of ethnic mixture, and language is often up for grabs.  I am learning Hawaiian (in an attempt not to be the Ugly American) because 1) I live here, and 2) both English and Hawaiian are the unofficially official languages (i.e. there IS no official language, but those two would be if there were).  My biggest challenge comes from the first generation speakers of other languages who are doing their best to learn English, but who began that quest at a late age (some even as late as I began learning Hawaiian!). 

In support of the parents with children in school, most folks who come from other countries try to make sure their children learn both the language of their heritage (Japanese, Ilocano, Tagalog, Samoan, etc.) as well as the language of their lives (English). This is true even (and sometimes especially) if the parents are less than fluent in English themselves.

It's a good start.


eje_usenet@yahoo.com Jun 29, 2009 9:26 am

Your comparison to Kyrgystan is not a perfect one.  That would be more like, to use your example, trying to impose a minority native language like some Indian one on a populace that is accustomed to a conqueror's language.  Fact is, the vast majority of people in the U.S. already speak English.  To legislate it as an official language would maintain its dominance, not impose it on a great number of citizens who don't know it, as was the case in Kyrgystan.  Maybe a better example might be India, where English is necessary to maintain national unity in the face of many disparate languages.  A country divided, by language or anything, cannot stand.  If we fractionalize into different societies who can't mutually communicate, if we can't conduct the business of state in a common parlance, we risk falling apart as a nation.  At least Kyrgystan has Russian to keep them together.  Since by nature we are a nation of immigrants, it is not possible to accomodate everyone's language in the affairs of state (so while countries like Israel and Wales have a natural bilinguality or trilinguality, we do not).  We can't write government forms in a hundred different languages.  The best solution is to standardize on one language and invite people to conform, and English is the natural language for that.


linguaphile@techarcana.com Jun 29, 2009 12:20 pm

The best solution is to standardize on one language and invite people to conform, and English is the natural language for that.

This is already what happens in the U.S. By convention, the populace speaks English. Products, signs, junk mail, all these things are written in English. Yes, there are signs that have Spanish on them, or even French. But not because they have to have them. Canada requires all packaging to have French as well as English versions, even for the people who live in British Columbia, where (I'm guessing) there are no French speakers.

Yes, in some places in the U.S.,  there are concentrations of immigrants who do not speak any English and the stores in the area cater to those speakers. When has this not been the case in any melting pot country? Sure, for the most part it's Spanish now, but in the first quarter of the 20th century, there were ghettos of all kinds of immigrants who spoke only the language of their homelands. And yet, their children learned English and now, those German, Chinese, etc. neighborhoods have mostly faded away.

So, there's no need to make a law stating that English is the official langauge of the country. Those who desire it really want to use it as a litmus test to determine who the illegal immigrants are. I have yet to hear an argument for having English be the official language which will actually make life on the whole easier or more satisfactory for Americans.

roberta.wedge@gmail.com Jun 29, 2009 5:45 pm

I will leave it to the US citizens to decide the relevance of the linguistic parallel to their country, but on a point of fact, Kyrgyzstan has two official languages, Russian and Kyrgyz, which exist in an uneasy tension.  In the days of the Russian Empire and then the USSR, Russian was the medium of official communication, and this privileged the ethnic Russians, who were posted all over as civil servants, managers, technicians, and professionals.  In addition, Stalin and later leaders shifted great swathes of population, such that even now one in eight citizens of Kyrgyzstan are of Russian ethnicity (and slightly more are Uzbeks, but their language has no official status). And finally, one thing the Soviet Union did very efficiently was to teach Russian as a second language, to tie the empire together. 

With nationhood in the early 1990s, all the former Soviet republics faced the decision of how to define themselves. Often, one of the first decisions was to resuscitate the mother tongue as an instrument of ethnic pride and government power.  The Baltic states did this with the intermittent spotlight of the European Union upon them.  Most of the 'stans did this in a short-sighted and vindictive manner, declaring the language of the majority (Tajik, Turkmen, Uzbek) the official language, and effectively dispossessing those who spoke only Russian.  They were encouraged (there's a nice euphemism) to go "home" to Russia, although in fact they and their parents may well have been born in the constituent republic and had never left it.  This triggered a massive brain drain, as the most educated tranche of the population left.  Krgyzstan was one of only two 'stans to refuse the easy populist step of establishing a single state language: Russian and Kyrgyz have equal status under the constitution.

It would be misleading to think of a Kyrgyz citizen who spoke only Russian as being linguistically deracinated: most monoglots are the descendents of Russian immigrants, not settled nomads who have lost their ancestral tongue along with their herds of milking mares. The test given to the presidential candidates strikes me as a proxy for racial or ethnic selection. What lessons there are for the United States in this, it is not for me to say.

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