© 2008 by Janice Byrd

Janice Byrd of McKinney: English is central to our shared experience

More people should speak our language
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

We need more people speaking English in Texas. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a proponent of legal immigration--even expanding it, but a standard language is the key to communication, cooperation, camaraderie. More than that--English defines us as a people.

Forty years ago when I learned American Sign Language and began to interact with the deaf community, I learned how important language was to my worldview. I’ve heard it said that you can’t really know people until you know their language, and that is certainly true of the deaf culture. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated with the study of language and how our language shapes the way we think. (Maybe part of our government’s frustration in dealing with the Iraqis right now is because so few of us know their language and don’t really understand their worldview.)

During the 1970’s, my husband and I helped a young Russian couple immigrate to Dallas. They quickly learned English, enough to go to a trade school, get a job, converse freely about serious matters, and to become citizens. Years later, my friend told me that while growing up in Moscow, she had never known a word that meant “charity.” That speaks volumes about the Russian worldview at the time.

In every language there are words that simply can’t be translated into another language. These untranslatable words show us the cracks in between our worldviews. When we incorporate a foreign word into our vocabulary, we incorporate a part of that culture. When countries complain that their language is being “Americanized,” they mean that they don’t want our culture sneaking into theirs via their language. I’ve heard those same concerns about the Spanglish being spoken in Collin County.

Recently I overheard a woman telling her friend about a frustrating phone conversation she’d had with a catalog company. She realized that she was talking to someone from another country, and she just could not understand what he was saying. Finally, she hung up with the words, “Me and youze ain’t communicatin.” I’m sure both of them thought their failure to communicate was the other’s fault.

Thanks to the Internet, English has become the second language of choice (if not the first) in most of the world. It is ironic that anybody living in the United States would not want to learn and use English. We need a common language with standard grammar.

Immigrants aren’t the only ones with a problem communicating in English.

We no longer share the common language of fables, fairytales, literature, or the Bible. We can’t agree on what a hero looks like, and scholars keep rewriting our history. Hundreds of television channels, the diversity and plethora of movies, music, and an expanding canon of required reading at every educational level make it difficult for people born and raised in America to speak the same cultural language.

A few years ago when the International Terminal opened at DFW Airport, I picked up an “English to English Dictionary” at the British Airways desk. I remembered what Winston Churchill said, “Great Britain and the United States are two countries separated by a common language.” That could probably be said of people in Massachusetts and Texas today.

I’m all for learning as many languages as possible. (My own English-speaking grandchildren attend a Spanish preschool and are well on their way to being bilingual.) But, if we have any hope at all of unifying our North Texas area, let alone our country, we’re going to have to communicate with each other in English -- not because English is superior, but because, in a very real way, the English language has made us who we are.

Janice Byrd of McKinney is library director of the First Baptist Church of McKinney, a book performer and a Voices of Collin County volunteer columnist. Her e-mail address is Janice@JaniceByrd.com.

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