March 17th, 2011
Should English Be The Official Language Of The US?

Every time I write a column about immigration I’ll get the email or phone call du jour telling me about how their grandmother came to this country with only the clothes on her back, learned English, got a job and never asked for anything. These messages multiply when I write about language in the context of immigration.

So I’ll ask, politely, did your grandmother speak English with an accent?  Where did she learn English? How long did it take her? Did she speak English at home and with her family? Were there newspapers published in her native language? Did she read them? These are all  relevant questions because today’s immigrant experience is no different than the experience of immigrants two or three generations ago. My father is an immigrant, fluent in English and speaks it with a wonderful accent (he learned it among the polish community in Chicago in the 1950’s, so I’ve heard him let a “crap!” fly, which is hilarious).

A little known fact is that the first bi-lingual school in San Antonio, back in the early 19th century, was German-English.

There is no doubt that English is the de facto official language in the United States. No one can get ahead in this country, in education, business or professionally, without being literate and fluent in English. Punto. In my travels across the Southwestern United States I consistently come across churches, schools and community centers with waiting lists of people wanting to learn English.

So the idea that new immigrants (read here Latinos)  won’t or don’t need to learn English is preposterous. Still, there are some politicians who fear that their language and culture will die under the weight of an immigrant onslaught. Fox News Latino raised the question:

With new Official English bills pending in Congress, and similar measures in state legislatures around the country, the question is moving front and center: Does the United States need to enforce the use of the English language?

Linguists tell us that an immigrant community will lose the use of it’s mother tongue in two generations. Sara Inés Calderón has written about the need to speak Spanish as a requisite to being a “real” Latino. This is not a debate that’s close to being settled.

“Learning English has become a neglected area of our immigration policy,” said Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration controls. “A lot of people are not feeling like they have to learn to English.”

“Immigration into the United States is so dominated by immigrants from one particular linguistic group,” Vaughan said, “this enables the creation of segments of society – because there are so many people who speak Spanish – that don’t have the incentive or pressure to learn English because they can get by without it.”

But those who oppose Official English measures say they are mean-spirited.

They argue that the congressional bill, sponsored by Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King and Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, would disenfranchise many people who are not yet fluent in English through its requirement that all government business be conducted in only English.

The most recent bill proposed in the US Congress by Rep. King and Sen. Inhofe goes a little further than other official English measures:

  • It requires that all government services and literature be provided only in English, except in cases of health or national emergencies.
  • It requires workplaces, both in the private and public sector, to abide by U.S. laws governing language.
  • It allows people to sue in federal court where the language laws are not followed.

At last count there were 30 states in the country that have enacted Official English laws.

2 thoughts on “Should English Be The Official Language Of The US?

  1. Pingback: Should English be the Official Language of the US? | Texas Observer

  2. Let’s see if they understand this: ‘pendejos!’

    That’s Spanish.

    I read a sign that said, ‘De tus 100 problemas, 10 son por pendejo y 90 por metiche’. This is so true of their fears that the immigrant onslaught will squelch their culture. Culture is a living organism made up of all aspects of life. It is affected by the tsunami in Japon, Chernobyl, Lady Gaga, feijoada, a crocodile in the Outback, and so on. Culture is not bound by borders, it is bound by narrow mindedness. One can preserve a culture to the point of mockery whereby their version of culture is but a caricature of the real experience. While I am almost certain that this is not their goal, their rhetoric about ‘Americana’ is so narrowly focused that they probably would not recognized the America Arlo Guthrie sang of, nor recognize the Mississippi Mark Twain wrote of. Heck, if they are such purists, they should change their behaviour and speak English like the British.

    Let’s see if they understand this: Latin is a dead language, however its descendants live on – all marked by their socio-economic influences found within their changing borders of a thousand years.

    English will not die because of the immigration, but it will change with time. Stereo types are a lazy crutch for lack of understanding and an unwillingness to adapt to the new realities- both socio and economic. These laws don’t preserve their culture, they hinder it at the expense of the people who are willing to leave their countries for the promise of a future for their children.

    Who would you rather come to the country – the person who is willing to leave all that they know to work for their future, or the person that is unwilling to change for fear and narrow-mindedness. Hmmm, where could we send THEM?

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