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Monday, May 22, 2006
If insisting on English being the national language of the U.S. is “silly,” as Cokie Roberts proclaimed on ABC’s Sunday morning program or “racist,” as Senate Minority leader Harry Reid claimed last week, that certainly doesn’t say much for the rest of the world. The Associated Press reports: Some 158 nations have included a specific measure in their constitutions promulgating one or more national languages, according to a survey by Eduardo Faingold, a professor at the University of Tulsa. The United States is one of the relatively few without such a measure. Why does language matter so much? Is it about preserving a common culture? Maybe, but I suspect it’s more about power. The AP story quotes a couple of other college professors. Walt Wolfram, a social linguist at North Carolina State University -- “Language is never about language," "Why should it be any different in the United States?” Dick Tucker, an expert on language education, planning and policy at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University – “I think it's a worry about who will continue to have political and economic influence.” Consider the case of the Omaha grocer, No Frills, in Omaha. Manager Dick O'Donnell decided a few years back to brush up on his Spanish to help him with the store's growing number of Latino shoppers. Now, No Frills is making Spanish mandatory for all managers, pharmacists and butchers at the south side Omaha store. The company will pay for all classes, including overtime. Managers who don't want to learn Spanish have the option of transferring to other stores. No Frills President Rich Juro insists, “This is not a political issue at all, this strictly taking care of business.” It’s not unusual for business owners and employees to have to learn new skills to keep their jobs or to get ahead. It’s also not unusual to meet resistance. I remember when the newsroom at WGEM-TV in Quincy, IL first replaced typewriters with computers. One reporter, who was nearing retirement, couldn’t adjust to the change. She had a nervous breakdown and committed suicide. That’s an extreme example, but it’s not unusual for workers to resist change or find it hard to develop the new skills necessary to keep up or get ahead. But learning Spanish is not just another necessary skill. It is a skill necessitated by a growing Latino influence. Businesses that tell you to “press one for English and two for Spanish” are doing exactly what the Omaha grocer is doing. They are catering to a new set of customers with new demands. These new customers are forcing change (and people are naturally resistant to change) and they are forcing many people to learn new skills. Not only does that inconvenience us, it means they are gaining power, and power, unlike the economy, is relatively static – that is, when someone gains power, someone else loses it. Finally, we don’t know what this loss of power is going to mean. We don’t know what the new immigrants will do with their power. Will they use it against us? Will they be liberals or Marxists, or worse? Fear of the unknown is also very common. It is much easier to imagine the worst than the best – especially in government and politics, which so often disappoints. The “English is our national language” debate provides a convenient market basket for all of these issues and fears, and it’s neither “silly” nor “racist.” The issues are real and substantive. The fears are justified. But there are also practical, less emotional reasons that English should not just be the national language, but the official language of the United States. One is that English is the international language of commerce. If you are going to thrive, not just survive, in the United States, you must know how to speak English fluently. Spanish speaking people may have enough buying power and political power to force businesses and government agencies to cater to them, but they will never run those businesses and agencies if they don’t speak English. Finally, one cannot fully assimilate into a country without learning to communicate with other citizens of the country. Imagine being adopted into a family and not being able to communicate with your new parents or siblings. The same is true for a country. One common language is necessary for any country that is going to resolve its differences peacefully, and especially for a democratic country that believes in open, public debate as the precursor to public policy. It’s a small example, but a person who can’t speak English can’t even call the Ralph Bristol Show and tell my why they think I’m wrong about the need to learn English. The “English is the national language” amendments to the Immigration Reform bill in the Senate are both largely symbolic. They should go farther, and make English the “official language” of the United States. If fact, it should be in the Constitution, and all government agencies on all levels should conduct business in English only. That’s not discrimination. It’s not silly and it’s certainly not racist. It’s simply a tool to achieve the many benefits that accompany the ability to speak English in the United States. If it’s not asking too much that No Frills managers learn to speak Spanish, it’s certainly not asking too much that immigrants to the United States learn to speak English. Ralph Bristol (
posted by Jack Mercer @ 5/22/2006 10:15:00 AM  
  • At 5/23/2006 09:48:00 PM, Blogger Kathy Schrenk said…

    This is one of those areas where I take a wide departure from my usual far-left views. There's no reason why we shouldn't have a national language and, since the majority of U.S. residents speak English, it should be English. It's ludicrous to posit the theory that having no national language helps or even doesn't harm people who don't speak English. If you don't speak English, you are on the fringe of American society. You are more likely to live in poverty. You are not doing yourself any favors by rejecting English.

    I was listening to an interesting piece on NPR today (during the Newshour program) about this debate. It was pointed out that a law designating a national language should come with funding for ESL programs. It occurred to me that the millions of dollars spent to print ballots in three languages could be spent thusly.

  • At 5/30/2006 08:15:00 AM, Blogger Jack Mercer said…

    Hi Kathy!

    Good to hear from old friends! (not old as in age:)

    I agree entirely. Not sure that the issue though is left or right (just that everyone seems to try to frame issues in that manner often). I think its common sense.

    I saw the cost of bilingualism in Canada.


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