Caught in the grips of linguistic paranoia

24 08 2008

WHAT MAKES the largest military power on earth tremble in its boots? What causes an entire nation of people – the majority of whom descended from non-English speakers – to shudder in fear? What provokes outrage at debates and town hall meetings in the current presidential campaign? Language, that’s what.

Not every language is seen as Uncle Sam’s nemesis – just the 6,911 languages that are not English. Americans often view other languages as a threat their identity – both as individuals, and as a nation. It’s for this reason that a Pennsylvanian recently stood up and told John McCain how angry it makes her to see the word entrada at the entrance to her local Lowe’s home improvement store. Barack Obama dared to suggest last month that American children should learn a language currently spoken by more people in the world than English: Spanish. Hillary Clinton even stated, albeit jokingly, that it’s time for the United States to have a multilingual president.


This an article I found in the Boston Globe by Nataly Kelly.  She touches in something that I have covered before, why is it that there is such a drive, mandate, to try to eliminate other languages, why is it that there is this dismissal of the need to speak other languages? why is it that people get angry when people speak other languages? Why is it that when people speak in a different language or with an accent, that is felt as a threat to “our way of life”?


Linguistic paranoia seems to have reached unprecedented levels in recent years, a phenomenon that would probably shock our Founding Fathers. After all, they intentionally decided not to declare an official language for America, knowing full well that linguistic dominance in the world is often in flux, and that doing so could restrict the country’s ability to both compete internationally and respond to domestic needs.

The White House has a time-honored tradition of multilingualism. Our second president, John Adams, spoke several languages fluently. He believed in learning other languages and made sure that his son, John Quincy Adams, studied four of them.

The third president, Thomas Jefferson, spoke between five and seven languages. Herbert Hoover and his wife were fluent in Mandarin, and they translated a book from Latin into English. Jackie Kennedy made campaign speeches in Spanish, Italian, and French to appeal to multilingual voters.


We have the means to be a linguistic superpower. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world when it comes to natural language resources, with an estimated 311 languages spoken within our borders – 162 of these are indigenous languages, and 149 come from other countries. Our internal linguistic diversity has proved to be an asset time and time again – Navajo was used for strategic military purposes as a code language in World War II, and current operations abroad would be impossible were it not for the help of the many US linguists who risk life and limb each day.


So why do the bald eagle’s feathers get ruffled every time our presidential candidates mention language issues? Fear of the unknown. What we are not familiar with makes us uncomfortable. Accepting that we are a multilingual nation is a challenge, because it requires looking beyond our borders and outside our comfort zone. The only solution? Know thy enemy.

Nataly Kelly is a senior analyst with Common Sense Advisory, a market research firm specializing in business globalization, and the editor of “From Our Lips to Your Ears,” a book about the role of interpreters in society.

I always wondered why the US did not have an official language or languages like most countries. The country of immigrants, I was told. But Immigrants are expected to assimilate an lose their languge and customs. I guess those that don’t threaten the way of life, or maybe, just maybe contribute to make the culture richer, the country more interesting, powerfull, more advanced, and maybe they help make this so coveted way of life what it is, like the immigrants that came before them did.




5 responses

24 08 2008

Excellent point. Been hearing it for years in the translation and interpretation community. The NSA runs full-page ads in each month of the “ATA Chronicle”, the publication of the American Translators Assn. But no one seems to want to pay for translators or interpreters, recognize them as experts (they get brought into the military as enlisted, whereas nurses and accountants get commissions), or even acknowledge that language training has to start very early. Hope this latest article helps the situation a bit.

26 08 2008
Johnny Peepers

Unfortunately, the government schools do not promote foreign language skills. The result is a body of citizens who fear others who can speak another language. The popular culture and the media are also guilty in sponsoring a xenophobic society that is Anglo-centric and elitist to the point of absurdity.

The government does not want a free flow exchange with individuals from other non-English speaking countries because they want to control the information the majority of Americans are exposed to. If Americans could read, discuss, and associate with other points of view, suppressed media coverage would lose its effect on the opinions of Americans regarding the abuses of its leaders.

27 08 2008

Johnny, I agree with you, the media only shows certain things and they are slanted. I see news from other outlets (not just US) and it is amazing how much gets filtered here.

I was watching some “news” broadcast and it reminded me of things I heard on Cuban radio, where the talk was so obviously biased it shouldn’t be called news.

2 09 2008

It’s because in America, we believe in the “melting pot.” This is taught to every school child (or was in the 1960’s when I was a child.) Learning one language and one point of view makes for national cohesiveness. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but a country is certainly stronger that way.

Conversely, look at Canada always on the verge of breaking apart, and mostly over the language issue. They don’t believe in the “melting pot,” but instead believe in the “patchwork quilt” model. It doesn’t make for national cohesiveness.

I love you blog and all the great, interesting topics you choose to discuss!

Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

2 09 2008

Eileen, thanks for your kind words.

I actually agree with an official language and I also think that if you move to a country, you should learn the language.

I also think that learning other languages gives people a more global view, a more open mind, and an overall advantage.

I would love for people to stop fearing one another and get to know each other.


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