Are They Talking About Me?
What are the ideological implications of choosing an official language? What kind of underlying belief system does it betray? A major marker of culture and identity, language separates worlds of experience. And when it’s not your own, it’s often uncomfortable to have to deal with. Basic questions that seem both ludicrous and startlingly worrisome express thoughts and assumptions that begin to surface along the lines of “Are they talking about me?” This may appear paranoid and self-centered, but is also a reflection of the linguistic isolation monolingual American English speakers experience on a daily basis. The unique geographical position, along with the desires of the founders of the country, have combined to create an insular environment for English, much more so than in other parts of the world. In addition, American citizens speak one of the world’s most influential languages, affording them little motivation to learn a second language beyond the cursory high school or college curriculum experience. As any bilingual speaker will tell you, that’s not really speaking two languages at all.
So we have a naturally protected environment for “one nation, one language” to function as the ideological as well as the policy-based modus operandi. Our forefathers did not feel it was the role of government to dictate to the people what languages they should speak. Furthermore, it was not uncommon in the early days of this country, as it is now, for legal documents, pamphlets, and other official or quasi-official communications to be published in the myriad of languages that represent our multi-cultural roots. Spanish, German, French, and Dutch are a few of the first languages immigrants brought with them to add to the cultural and linguistic landscape of a country made up of transplants. From a healthy linguistic competition, English emerged as the early winner, the language to bind speakers of many languages together. To that effect, it is the de facto, conventional and fully accepted primary language.
Nested within our overtly anglophonic culture we have a long-standing tradition of multi-lingualism. Vestiges of true bilingualism exist in our efforts to expose children at every level of education to other Western European languages. Even in the face of this tradition and ideological motivations behind creating a country without an official language, however, there is a voice that in the form of legislation has asked both federal and state-level governments to adopt English as the official language of the United States. The current efforts by organizations such as U.S. English would see English adopted as the official language, and in such a capacity displace languages spoken in families and minority communities more than ever before.
What has English done for you?
Regardless of its (lack of) official status, English is the language of the people. Overwhelmingly used as the primary language in all walks of life, English is transmitted successfully to the kids of every generation, and of every cultural background. The American public school systems guarantee transmission by using English both in the classroom and in the playground. It’s the language of formal education as well as of informal communication. It’s present in every form of media, and is highly sought as a second language around the world and by non-native speakers in the U.S. Studies show that even those with no formal second language education, simply by being immersed in the culture, acquire a functional grasp of the language. Its far-reaching global status is recognized in Africa as well as Europe and Asia. It’s very apparent to the world that speaking English is associated with socioeconomic opportunities not available in many people’s first language, therefore it is desired. Most important to realize is that, even if not every person speaks English in the U.S., those person’s children will. Removing the ability of non-fluent citizens and visitors the ability to interact with the government and within their own communities by enforcing English Only doesn’t change the actualities of language use: People have different capacities to learn and retain a second language, but as long as that language is being taught as a first language, the status quo is naturally maintained by the majority language.
English Only policy seeks to reaffirm a status that it has no right to either create or uphold. A language becomes widely used and influential through use. Awarding it a legal status changes little in the way it propagates through the greater culture and society. Education, the media, and the variety of social exchanges that occur in English are responsible for English being the majority language. When understood in this light, the English Only movement is hollow and meaningless, a misplaced effort that could and should be used to attend to other, more pressing matters regarding the status of language and languages in this country.
Furthermore, there are the ramifications of legalizing a human cognitive facility. Like many other efforts in the past to regulate human behavior and categorize people according to ethnic or genetic markers, this effort will only work to strengthen the boundaries of an artifice upon our culture that we would do better without. Giving English legal status directly works against the social mechanisms we have in place by which to identify ourselves and each other. Governing people’s spoken lives will incur costs both financial and cultural that we should not be prepared to shoulder, and will doom yet another generation to a purgatory of self-identity as the same words echo as have in the past: “I don’t know my mother tongue.” We as a society are still dealing with the after-effects of the Native Americans who forsook Navajo and other languages after suffering through boarding schools and the rural elementary school children who suffered physical punishment for speaking Spanish in the classrooms of old Texas and the Southwest. These people kept their own children from learning their mother tongue to the detriment of their family and cultural identity, and encouraged them to only speak English. The fallacy in these efforts is that the children of immigrants become so quickly acculturated that any overt effort to do so by preventing the learning of another language is redundant and effectively irrelevant. It should be the ideal of a progressive, diverse society to encourage a healthy linguistic home environment. Bilingualism should not have a negative value when it comes to citizenship, participation and integration within the greater society.
English Only policies will cast a reign of shadows over minority language speakers. Legal immigrants and Native Americans alike who use the same services and interact with the same government as native English speakers stand to lose opportunities in official capacities. The time, effort, and money it takes to translate official U.S. documents into other languages has always been devoted to the same task since the 1700s, and in no way eclipses other government spending figures which may or may not be as significant. Beyond the bureaucratic consequences, by accepting this policy the country runs the threat of expediting the rate at which some languages become extinct.
Ethics and Progress
Beyond the questions of legality, which on their own are substantial, we also deal with the more abstract but just as crucial concepts that influenced the original decision to do without an official language. It’s been pointed out that the forefathers couldn’t have predicted how many languages we have to deal with. Yet I wonder how sympathetic they would be to our plight if they compared their technology to ours. We benefit from digital media that have brought the world closer together, standardizing and making available more languages to more people. It would stand to reason that we utilize these advantages to benefit all. However, even these flimsy arguments sidestep the underlying sentiment that drives policy efforts such a English Only. Claiming patriotism, these efforts eclipse more fundamental memberships that we should also feel a strong responsibility toward: American multi-cultural and multi-lingual culture, and the human race, wherein everyone has an equal right to speak the language they were taught to express themselves in.
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