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A Common Language

Gauper, Larry. "A Common Language." F-M Extra, 21 March 2010, Volume 9, Issue 12, 3.

This essay originally appeared in The Wordchipper, a column in the F-M Extra a weekly newspaper published in eastern North Dakota.


I’ve always felt that one of the qualities that built this country—the greatest on Earth—was a common language. Here, many ethnicities, working together, seek to understand each other through an agreed-to language: English. I believe our culture is enriched by the amalgamation of legally-welcomed immigrants from other nations, coming to “the land of the free and the home of the brave” to pursue their own success and happiness. What has made this work, though, has been a single language spoken and written by all, no matter what our native nationalities.

When my Norwegian ancestors came to this country, when the Swedes, Germans, Italians and others also arrived here in the Upper Midwest, they wanted to learn the common language of the nation that welcomed them. Actually, most didn’t have a choice: I talked recently to those of “Germans from Russia” ancestry—now in their mid-60s—and they told me that when they started first grade in central North Dakota, there was no coddling as to language. No accommodation for German, the only language they had learned at home and could understand. They had to learn English.

But learn English they did, and most went on to be very successful students, citizens, professionals, legislators and business leaders here in their adopted country. No complaints from these lawful immigrants. Listening to their oral histories, one hears how they wanted to be Americans in every sense of the word, including learning our country’s common language. (An excellent source of these personal accounts is the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection located in the main library building at North Dakota State University in Fargo, or visit their very deep and knowledge-rich website at http://library.ndsu.edu/grhc.)

That was then; this is now. All you have to do is spend some time in Florida, as I did this winter, to realize we’re in real jeopardy of losing the great American strength of a single language that all Americans know how to speak and write. Same thing is happening in Arizona, Nevada and, of course, California. However, the most recent example of how bad it can get comes from the Pacific Northwest.

According to news reports, English-speaking firefighters in Oregon are losing their positions as team leaders because of a state law requiring them to be bilingual; that is, in order to continue serving in a supervisory position, they are required to speak Spanish. The law was enacted three years ago and now it’s being enforced. An example cited was of a 20-year firefighting veteran who can no longer work as a crew boss because he’s not a Spanish-speaker. Instead of forcing these knowledgeable, experienced supervisors to learn Spanish, why can’t the Hispanics be forced to learn English—if they want to be government employees? After all, this is America, not Mexico! Instead, lawmakers insist on doing it hind-end backwards: force the majority to learn the language of the minority because many of these immigrants refuse to learn English and become fully American like our European ancestors did.

I really don’t care what language anyone speaks at home, and we should teach foreign languages in our schools. However, if someone in this country—legal or otherwise—wants to receive benefits from the government, including a job and the right to vote, it must happen in English. Provide some temporary translation services, of course, but for every immigrant who wants to be a citizen and take advantage of America’s benefits, it must be through an “English only” process.

Down here in the “Sunshine State,” bilingualism is rampant. More significantly, however, is the huge need for translators in hospital emergency rooms. It’s not unusual to see a family of six or nine or more come into an emergency room and demand physical check-ups for their children, even if the child is showing no visible symptoms of the kind of serious condition that ERs are intended to treat. And in most cases, the ones who demand the most do not have any insurance and many can’t even prove they’re in this country legally. Hospitals are helpless to stop this. In fact, regarding mental health services in Florida, large numbers of illegal aliens are receiving medical services while bona fide American citizens and Florida taxpayers are being turned away. That, too, is as wrong as forced bilingualism.

I support the thought behind Emma Lazarus’s words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” I, too, welcome all immigrants who joined us legally. But the best thank-you all immigrants can give the country that has given them new freedoms and opportunities is to learn our common language and, thus, help preserve one of America’s greatest strengths.

Reprinted with permission of Larry Gauper.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
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