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May 20, 2010



When I think back on my years in school, the "gifted level" classes did me the most good in life. We were taught Greek, Latin, and primary logic skills. Later, in high school, I took French classes, and while I never gained the ability to speak it conversationally, I did pick enough of it up for something else surprising.

I never graduated from college. I was hired directly out of high school at a dotcom. There, I was exposed to an amazing amount of diversity, including a group of Haitian-Americans. Speaking Creole came naturally to me and before long, I was jesting with the best of them. I also picked up some Persian and Turkish from a friend who spoke 7 languages.

Now, my daughter is in a world language school that teaches Spanish, English, and Mandarin Chinese. My boys are in a regular public school. This summer, they'll all be surprised when I break out the Greek and Latin root word flash cards! I believe their education will be much more thorough if they know the base languages.

D Gouldin

As a 30-year classroom veteran in North and South Carolina, I am embarassed to say that whenever there is a budget crunch, foreign language at the most fundamental elementary levels is often the first thing to make an exodus, along with the arts. This means that at an age when our children could easily learn a language in a natural way through music and dance and other fun activities, the opportunity is removed. How sad to then offer upper-level languages when it is so much harder for our children to acquire a second language. Those classes often are sources of great academic torment to our young people, who have passed the age of learning with ease. I am constantly amazed that those in power fail to grasp the importance of recent research on the brain and learning, and do little to support early childhood education across the board.


Es kommt darauf an, was fuer Sprachen Sie meinen, wenn Sie um "bilingualism" schreiben. Meinen Sie, dass Amerika unbedingt Englisch/Spanisch sprechen soll? Damit bin ich, selbstverstaendlich, nicht zufrieden.

I could go on and on in German, a language I speak fluently, as well as write something passable in Russian. But my point, stated above, is: It depends what you have in mind when you speak of America's becoming a "bilingual nation." If you mean that all Americans should learn Spanish as well as English, no, I disagree completely. (For one thing, where I live it would be almost useless -- the second language in these parts is French.)

But if you mean that Americans should all speak another language, definitely. My life has been so enriched by my ability to speak and read German, and is becoming even more so as I make slow but definite progress in Russian. Most Russian-Americans I know are multi-lingual, as well, so yes, it's a good idea. But the idea of forcing everyone to learn Spanish is really offensive -- unless there's a possibility that Spanish-speaking people would be willing to learn to speak German, French, Italian, Russian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, as well as English. Get my point??

Victoria Smith

I agree that bilingual is a goal to strive for. I just object to the people who insist on ONLY speaking their native language, i.e., Spanish, and don't bother to learn English. As old fashioned as it might be, my grandparents, both from Italy, insisted on English at home because they wanted their children to be Americans. Go figure.

Lynn K. Buchanan

Interesting comment there. 35% of US RESIDENTS speak Spanish. And how many of them are U.S. Citizens or Legal residents???
Here in Yakima, WA, we have to hire folks to translate the local version of Spanish, called MEXICAN, to give them services for free, that is, paid for by the taxpayers. Most of them have better medical services (welfare) than I.

What is Bilingual? I spoke Japanese to a fellow who was insisting on my speaking Mexican and he got upset. This is still the USA.

Lynn Buchanan

Robert Greenman

Steve, I was struck by your selection and praise for the Noah Webster biography. I read the book several years ago and not only loved it but got in touch with the author to tell him so, calling the phone number at his Web site. Was I surprised when Unger, himself, answered the phone. He was appreciative of my compliments, and when I told him I cried during the closing pages of the book, he said, "If you cried at that, then you've got to read my Lafayette book." I haven't read it yet but I will.

I just went to Mr. Unger's Web site to get his number for you, but there's no number there anymore, not even an e-mail contact. (Maybe after my phone call he decided he needed a buffer between him and his readers.)

I hope your column will encourage some of your readers to look for Mr. Giles's Webster book.

Carol Hill

"Yedda bout gullah?" (Have you heard about Gullah?)

While visiting South Carolina in the early 70's I given** (see below) a recorded (i.e., a 33 1/3 vinyl LP) history of Gullah that included several examples of this "language" of the Carolina low country. This recording had been made as part of a Smithsonian project.

As I recall, Gullah was described as a combination of English, Irish, and several African languages. Apparently this language evolved because plantation overseers were frequently Irish and the slaves they were overseeing had been kidnapped from a variety of locations in Africa, so arrived here speaking a variety of tribal languages. In order to minimize communication among the slaves (wonder what they would have had to talk about??) the tribal groups were split up, so an overseer had to communicate to a group of people speaking several different languages, making Gullah a uniquely American language.

So, not only have Native American languages contributed to our "American English", but many African languages as well.

**The woman who gave me the album had been raised in Charleston during the 40's and 50's where she learned Gullah because her African/American governess, aka her "Mammy" still spoke it. According to this woman, "Mammy's" and Gullah were still quite common in Charleston while she was growing up.

Norwegian Immigration Association (Rigmor Swensen, Chair)

Perhaps Adnan the top left in your photo also speaks Norwegian. He is wearing the Norwegian flag--not a very common sight.

Jerri Pantages Long

My father and his cousins (all born in the USA) grew up learning Greek as well as English. How I wish that I had had the opportunity to learn it while young! I studied French and German in high school, French continuing into my college years, and (several decades later) Italian in preparation for traveling to Italy for my son's wedding. Alas! The older I get, the harder it has become to add another language. Bilingualism should become every YOUNG American's goal!

Steve Leveen

Bilingualism in America is controversial; no sense in pretending it’s not. The controversy and debates should help us clarify just how important it is for everyone to share a common language—English—and share it well. It’s easy to say; hard to do.


David G. Stone

Steve and Staff,

I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of being bilingual. I am semi-biligual in Spanish, and our daughter is bilingual in Spanish as the result of an exchange student experience in Mexico. She went on to dual major in Latin American Studies and Spanish, and in fact teaches high school Spanish. The first week in June (as soon as school is out) she and our 7-year old granddaughter head to Campeche', Mexico to spend 10 days with her "Mexican" sister and extended families.
However, it should be done fully recognizing we each choose to be Americans and therefore English should be our primary language.
Everything goes in cycles, and the pendulum constantly swings from one extreme to the other. Right now it is "politically correct" to be good "global citizens." I would argue in order for Americans to be good "global citizens" we must first be good "USA citizens."
Bilingual: Yes!! English as the primary language for Americans: Yes!!
David G. Stone

Greg Gehr

What a wonderful post! My wife is the Tribal Linguist for her American Indian Tribe, and actively works to promote bilingualism in her Tribe by teaching both the native language of her Tribe as well as the language of the immigrant invaders (which, of course, is English).

We also watch Spanish TV with our 4 yr old so that he is exposed to other immigrant languages besides English. Our favorite is Sabado Gigante.

(Note to Lynn: The native language of your area is Ichishkíin Sínwit, classified by academics as a northwestern dialect of Sahaptin, a Sahaptian language of the Plateau Penutian family. Complaining about the effort of translating one immigrant language, Spanish, or "Mexican" as you incorrectly classify it, into another immigrant language, English, is truly ironic.)

Yôotva, Steve. Pa mi hih nitápkuup


You're off on this one, Steve. English is our language, but look how accommodating we already are to those who speak Spanish. Press 1 for English, please, etc.

I just took my children to a University Hospital....the instructions were posted in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese! My tax dollars will even pay for an interpreter if you've chosen not to learn English. Learn English if you are blessed to live here, and learn it well. That's where the focus needs to be....educating our children to speak and write well (which we're sorely neglecting) instead of setting up programs to cater to every foreign language under the sun.

Frank Grant

Wow!!!! that has been a pet subject of mine for twenty years. I'm politically pretty conservative, but I find myself at odds with my peers on this subject.
As a high school dropout and single father of a two-year- old daughter, I had very little opportunity to further my formal education and feed ourselves at the same time. In order to remedy the problem I quit my job, and went to work on a farm for a year, which gave me a solid foundation in the workings of the Spanish language--albeit a pretty butchered version.(It turns out that many migrant workers are not native Spanish speakers). I did finally learn the language, and later married a Mexican citizen. We have two daughters, one now 19, and the other 17.
For the first ten years of their lives we spoke no English at home, but lived normal American lives other than that.They were subjected to English everywhere except while talking to their mother and me, and to their grandparents who spoke no English. We are Christians, and they spent a lot of time in church-related activities as well. I had to fight the State of Alaska over the ESL and special-ed crap that they tried to force on my girls. I didn't allow that.
Now my youngest is at the top of the journalism class in HS, and also in English. And the 19-year-old is pulling almost all A's at Boise State U.
I'm convinced that it is because I made them learn both languages while they were still very young.
I firmly believe that ALL Americans should be conversant in two languages at the very least, for the same reasons that you mentioned.
I never made it back to school, but the bilingualism opened as many doors as the lack of a H.S. Diploma closed.
(I am now also comfortably conversant in German.)

Dari Linguist

Bilingualism's benefits are immeasurable. I plan on encouraging my kids, nieces, nephews and all young people to start learning a language as early as possible. Whether or not others are learning your language, it doesn't hurt to try and learn a new one yourself.

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