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.
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.
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.
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.
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.