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A Bilingual America

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I never took a foreign language class when I was in high school. I wanted to learn Spanish, but I never had time to fit it in my schedule, and it was only offered as an online course in my hometown. What little education I got in Spanish was given by my many Hispanic friends who went to school with me.

Eventually, in college, I did become fairly fluent in Spanish, and I’m extremely grateful for the experience. Learning a second language stretched my mind in new ways and gave me views into a different culture.

I remember my second-semester Spanish professor telling us something early in our class. She said, “America is becoming a bilingual country. Your communication skills will put you a step ahead of everyone else.”

What she said was essentially, true. The number of immigrants coming into America has grown steadily in recent years, and many of them are Hispanic and don’t know English. However, there are many in the U.S. who refuse to recognize this change.

“English only” movements have flared up several times in American history. French and Spanish were primary languages in North America when the U.S. gained the Louisiana Purchase and after the Mexican-American War, but these languages were usurped by English in the late 1800s. Most recently, in 2006, the Senate voted to designate English as our national language.

This begs the question: Does America need a national language?

It seems the government has taken a defensive posture with this move so that it will be able to avoid accommodating speakers of other languages (especially Spanish) as their populations grow. The proposal passed in 2006 as part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act states that no one has “a right, entitlement, or claim to have the government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform, or provide services or provide materials in any language other than English.”

Officials don’t want to think about the cost of always giving bilingual education in schools, or printing all government documents in a different language. A more serious risk is seen in having government workers who speak only English, because this could hinder safety and expediency. What happens in the case of an emergency, and a person who doesn’t know English is unable to communicate?

Most Americans are so accustomed to this “English only” mindset that they aren’t even surprised when they travel outside the country and find Europeans who converse in English, or signs posted with English translations along with the original French, Italian, or other language.

I went to Mexico last year hoping to use some of the Spanish I had learned, but I did not utter one word en español during my entire trip – because every Mexican citizen I met spoke English. It was impressive and convenient, but I was disappointed that even in their home country, they were using English as often as their own language.

That’s why I’m flabbergasted by the idea that some Americans so adamantly want to establish English as the official language. Many other countries around the world have been willing to accommodate different language speakers, but the U.S. has not tried nearly as hard to help anyone other than those who speak English.

The 2000 U.S. Census revealed that 18% of our population aged 5 and over speaks a language other than English at home. That’s 47 million people. The continuing influx of immigrants has forced America to consider the idea of a bilingual country, but so far, we’re not handling it too well.

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About Jo Light

Jo is a writer living in LA. When she's not trying to break into the entertainment business, she's watching movies, taking long walks, and playing video games.
  • Mel

    Great thoughts you’ve put through here. Seems like more and more people communicate through the internet, and a lot of language conversion software is coming out. We’ll probably be speaking “one” language before we know it.

  • daryl d

    Knowing a second language is great. I am semi-fluent in Spanish. But in order to survive as a nation, we need to have ONE common language that everybody speaks. Our tax dollars should not go to translate documents and I should not have to press 2 to hear English.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    America is way beyond having one “common language everybody speaks.” How would you propose to make that happen? By the way, on my planet, you press “1” for English.

  • Martin Lav

    “In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag… We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language… and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”
    Theodore Roosevelt 1907

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    Actually, in most of Europe, bilingual education is a requisite. It’s a pity that Americans continually fail to realize that the world does not revolve around the USA. Even sadder, we brought it on ourselves. If we don’t wake up to the core fact that nothing exists in a vacuum, we are doomed to the fate of al would-be empires.

  • bliffle

    No one should be allowed to graduate from High School without two languages, and one of them must be English. That accomplishes two purposes: it assures that all US citizens can speak the common language and it aids the USA in all future commercial and political enterprises abroad. Graduates must speak, read and write English, but need only be verbally conversant in the second language.

  • http://www.buyingone.com Christopher Rose

    I moved to Spain six years ago and knew only ole! Now I’m pretty fluent in Spanish and have found it a real pleasure to learn.

    An unexpected bonus is that it has also improved my understanding and use of English. I was taught that English was a Germanic language but, having studied German, I must say I’ve found that English has far more in common with Spanish.

    On a related note, the EU’s current policy of doing its business in every language of the member nations is both a total pain in the butt and a hugely inefficient use of time and money.

    I think it would be better if all EU nations required their children to learn either English or Spanish as a second language. They are the two most widely used world languages (apart from Mandarin) and that way everyone in the EU could speak to each other with ease, as opposed to the current tower of Babel madness!

  • Silver Surfer

    We are insisting on English in Australia as well.

    There is some resitance from students, but the Board of Studies has made its stand very clear: learn English. Americans still can’t understand us, however, so we have to speak slowly when they come for a visit.

    A serious note: On Martin Lav’s Teddy Roosevelt speech. US citizens can now be joint citizens of some other countries.

    I can only speak for this country as I don’t know the background about any others but I do know for a fact that Americans can now hold Australian citizenship without losing their US citizenship, and vice-versa, and may citizens of both countries do. That should probably be regarded as a substantial step for the US in terms of how it views such things, and a bizarre one too – as to hold Aussie citizenship, you are required to pledge allegience to Australia, and therefore to The Queen.

    Indeed, all Australian passports are issued in The Queen’s name, and bear the inscription:

    “The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, being the representative in Australia of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need.”

    Which means 230 years after the revolution that gave mad King George his comeuppance (or more accurately, those in his circle who were manipulating him), a US citizen can also be a citizen of Australia and thus pledge allegience to the Crown without being considered a traitor. The corner of our flag still retains the Union Jack in exactly the spot where it was taken off Old Glory and replaced by a ring of stars.

    They key here is the Australian oath once required a citizen to “renounce all other allegiences”, and no longer does, which led the State Department to relax its stand in relation to Australia. I believe nearly all requests to the US authorities for retention of US citizenship in such circumstances are granted except where there are special issues (anyone’s guess what that might be).

    I am told that this is not the case for most other countries, which is interesting. There are now many Americans living in Australia holding both US and Aussie citizenship (and don’t they get some stick from us for the first few years until they get fair dunkum :). The downside: the IRS retains tax rights worldwide, although I’m told they don’t enforce them as a rule.

    But the fact is, everything’s going full circle, and it only took just over 200 years. Go figure that one, guys.

    And people think the anglosphere is a joke. It ain’t. It’s real, and it’s coming …

    Either that, or we really are going to be the 51st state. Better if it’s just the anglosphere, because we can run it and there’ll be a lot less dramas. But you guys will have to get rid of the silly accents and learn to speak properly, and start building cars with steering wheels on the proper side so that you can drive on the proper side of the road.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    I’ll admit English is most likely on its way to becoming the universal language, at least in terms of tech and business. And I think it’s as viable as any other language in that regard. But I do object to decreeing it the “official” language here in the States. It pretty much is already, with Spanish a strong second. Still, we’ve gone 230 years without declaring an official language. I see no pressing reason to change that now.
    By the same token, I have a problem with the term “must be bilingual.” It really means “must speak Spanish.” Here in Dallas, we have a number of bilingual people,: Germans, Kurds, Iranians, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and on and on. The “bilingual” requirement on ly refers to Spanish, though. Call things what they are, I say. It gets rid of a lot of resentment further down the road.

  • Martin Lav

    Just as our esteemed comments editor noted, when he moved to Spain he learned to speak Spanish…..makes sense, since in Spain they speak Spanish. When I lived in Iran several years ago I learned to speak Farsi, it makes it much easier when taking a taxi across town or trying to buy bread from the baker.
    Point is, one should learn the local language where one lives, not expect the locals to learn theirs.

    I suppose if I moved to Australia, I’d learn to speak and understand whatever language they speak down there…..eh mate ;-)

  • http://howtolearnfrench.smallbazaar.com/ John

    People in most countries speak in English so that they can access the developed markets (primarily the US, UK and Australia) where the primary language is English. This explains the phenomenon of people in countries like Mexico and India being bilingual. I don’t think it would be fair to apply the same metrics the other way round. Though, I must admit, people are taking up languages like Chinese and Korean to ensure they stay relevant in the coming times!

  • Martin Lav

    It’s pretty simple, if you want to get a head in this country (US) then learn to speak English. If you don’t, then wait for some busy-minded liberal to make the Government spend our tax dollars to translate everything for you. This will ensure that you never learn English, never assimilate and never advance beyond the confines of your own language and socio-economic barriers.

    Or push 1 for English.

  • alessandro

    CR, I doubt the Germans, French or Italians need to learn Spanish within the EU context to communicate? English is fine.

    Multilingualism is nice, but as Switzerland shows – eventually the majority wants the chunk of the power.

    Learning more languages is not a necessity but a luxury that should be voluntary.

    I speak three languages (most of my friends speak three or even four, which makes us rare birds in North America)so I know the value of it.

    But…

    If America is predominantly English and born as such, so be it. That’s the language. That does not mean it should not let Spanish be accessible. On the contrary, the Hispanic demographic pretty much has made that decision so Americans need to face this reality as the author suggests. I’m sure a fair-minded compromise can be found.

    However, Hispanics need to learn English before Americans need to learn Spanish. It’s not up to Americans to learn it, and be called ignorant in the process should they decline.

    I trust people will make the right decisions according to their needs.

    Why do I think this? Trust me, I live in a bi-lingual country (Canada and Quebec) and know how tough legislating language laws are. In fact, they can become downright divisive and tend to criss-cross with civil liberties. It’s just an added needless problem to those that are far more important. It’s nice that in theory we should all dance and speak in many languages, but in practicality where one language dominates, that should be the language.

    DO NOT LEGISLATE A SECOND OFFICIAL LANGUAGE. Let Spanish go where it takes you and it will find its comfort zone and the population will adjust where it is relevant. No need for the state to get involved. If you do, be prepared to possibly not have linguistic peace.

  • Silver Surfer

    Que??

  • http://www.buyingone.com Christopher Rose

    I can’t really speak to the US language issues but I have to disagree with Alessandro’s point about the Germans, French and Italians not needing to learn Spanish. Knowing varying proportions of these three unattractive and clunky languages, they really do!

    Language needs evolve and Europe really needs a new approach to the current massively inefficient multi approach.

    On the other hand, Alessandro is right about the dangers of language and identity getting snarled up with politics. One only has to look at the terrible situation in Belgium to see how dangerous to the integrity of a nation this can be.

  • alessandro

    Um, Italian unattractive and clunky? Surely you jest?

    Yes, I wanted to bring up Belgium. Good point.

  • http://www.buyingone.com Christopher Rose

    Well, actually Italian is florid and waffley, just like French, but I was trying to gloss over that so as to spare your feelings!

    I really feel for Belgium. I once lived in Antwerp and later worked with people in Brussels.

  • alessandro

    Bah, spare me what? I simply don’t agree.

    Was it Charles V who said, “I speak Spanish to God, French to men, Italian to women and German to my horse?”

    Nice article, Jo by the way.

  • Warren Ogren

    Anyone that thinks the Hispanic criminal illegal invasion of this country is harmless and will not affect our quality of life is an idiot.

    The avowed agenda of La Raz and MALDEF, along with the Mexican government (With the help of our traitorous President and the rest of his cabal)is the overthrow of this country.

    Those like the writer of the article who can’t understand why American’s want to see English as our official language have their heads in the sand.

    What they fail to see is the coming civil war that will make the first look like childs play.

    WAKE UP PROUD AMERICANS, BEFORE THERE NO LONGER IS AND AMERICA TO BE PROUD OF!

  • moonraven

    I certainly support the overthrow of the US. Why not?

    The US advocates overthrowing every other country on the planet that doesn’t prioritize the interests of the US above its own.

    But, more to the point, I left the US almost 15 years ago for Mexico–not to be a snowbird or retire on the cheap, but because as a Native American I was simply uncomfortable in the vacuous “culture” of the US.

    I had a fair amount of Spanish vocabulary when I moved here, as I had been researching the Mexican Revolution of 1910 for a couple of book and theater projects, but I can’t say I could really speak the language.

    As where I live is the heart of Zapata Country, I spent much of the first 6 months I spent here interviewing folks who only spoke Spanish. Fastest way I know to learn Spanish! Plus I read exclusively in Spanish every day–the newspaper, magazines, books (the first 2 books I finished reading were a Leonardo da Jandra philosophical treatise and García Márquez’ Del amor y otros demonios–and it took me at least 6 months to be able to read one book of that type per day).

    I gave my first public reading of my own poems in Spanish the night before my 50th birthday (older language learners have a more difficult time learning new languages, so setting and achieving language learning goals is a critical necessity).

    For many years I wrote almost exclusively in Spanish in order to polish my use of the language. Recently I have started a book of poems in English–before I lose those skills and because it is a “looking backward” series which means examining situations and events that I experienced in English–and find I can still write poetry in English but clearly use a different part of my brain for much of the grunt work involved.

    I teach and train teachers in both languages–and I teach both languages, as well.

    I consider being bilingual very liberating. Because one’s view is shaped by the grammar and syntax of one’s language, I am able to have the benefits of TWO ways of looking at and relating to the world around me.

    If more people were bilingual, they would be able to put themselves in the shoes pf folks from other cultures–and perhaps nopt be wuite so quick off the blocks to destroy those same cultures.

    On a purely pragmatic note, I can tell you that my countrymen who cross the border are–one by one–taking back the territory the US ripped off from Mexico in the 19th century–so you had damn well BETTER start learning Spanish!

  • Martin Lav

    If’n they don’t learn to speak English, they will continue to caste themselves in the eternal maize of chief laborers to the well-oft that do speak English and can progress, such as Alberto Gonzales and Governor Richardson etc…..I’d say that most Mexican American’s that I know and I know a lot of them, would have English as the primary language and don’t want their hard earned money that they may send back to Mexico, taxed heavily to support some mojado that refuses to learn English.

  • moonraven

    That made absolutely NO sense.

    Where DO they find you people–who are not even monolingual?

  • Martin Lav

    Well after your “Dave Nalle style self-absorption” in post #20 that went on and on about how smart you are, I guess my one or two lines wouldn’t make sense to you.

    Bird-brain I’d say….

  • moonraven

    They would not make sense to anyone.

    You seem to have missed the point that the FIRST task of language is communication.

  • moonraven

    And nowhere in MY post did I say anything about how smart I was or am.

    Learning a language has NOTHING to do with intelligence.

  • Martin Lav

    “They would not make sense to anyone.”

    Well, I guess you’re right since this sentence does not make sense to me and I have no idea what you are trying to communicate.

    Let’s just say this, if you so advocate the taking back of lands in the US by infiltrating the occupying country with chiefly uneducated mojado’s, I’d say your strategery is pretty weak.

  • Martin Lav

    My God, you and Nalle are just alike.
    You can self-congratulate ceaselessly and in writing yet, pretend you’re humble peasants living in a adobe fortified compound.

  • moonraven

    I said nothing about MY strategy, palesface.

    THEY is the post you found so uncommunicative refers to “my one or two lines”. To what ELSE could it have referred?

    Language is always referential [Personal attack deleted by Comments Editor].

  • Martin Lav

    My/they….birds of a feather….

    You live in Mexico, because you can feel superior and you want the Mexicans to take back “their” lands. So like you agree with the strategy to me.

    Using poor laborers to do your work, so you can move back to the US and feel superior again?

    Sad, ego-centric, intellectual….typical.

  • moonraven

    Intellectual–as in professional academic–is the only word of truth in your offensive post.

    Nowhere have I indicated a feeling of superiority regarding Mexicans. I believe I made it very clear, in fact, that I came to Mexico to do book and theater projects in regard to the Mexican Revolution.

    I also happen to teach and train teachers and serve as the technical advisor for a livestock cooperative that I helped found.

    How are those actions indicative of my “feeling superior”?

    BTW, THEY refers to the noun LINES–not to the pronoun MY.

    English grammar too tough for you? ESL classes are available at most community colleges in the States. I suggest you sign up for them.

    I would NEVER move back to the US. It is full of meanspirited functionally illiterate gringo punks like you.

  • Martin Lav

    You saying it doesn’t make it so. Your actions are far clearer than your words. You love to play the superior intellectual fighting for the poor downtrodden Mexicans against the Gringo’s to the north.
    You won’t move back to the states because you would lose your rung on your ladder, yet you do nothing, but continually email/banter on with Americans via this stupid blog.
    You’re pathetically transparent.

  • Z-man

    A point of usage: you have used the phrase ‘this begs the question’ in the sense that the question has feelings and is pleading to be answered. This is exactly backwards. ‘Begging the question’ means to avoid answering it: prevaricating. Richard Nixon was really good at this: “I’m glad you asked that,” and then give some long-winded non-answer. A good dictionary is requisite for writing.

  • anon

    what everyone says is a valid point. Like the money being spent to translate stuff does add up and others learing our language is great, but what people don’t realize that others who have English as a second language goes through a lot more tests than “native” english speakers. Sometimes those who have a second language are even better at English than people who don’t have it as a second language, so there’s a double standard. I personally am bilingual and get that others are mad about the change, but face it. Take out all of the bilingual people and everyone is just going to have a harder time. America is already thought to be bad, so by not accepting others it only make US look worse.

  • http://www.spanishtricks.com rocket spanish review

    Becoming a bilingual is excellent. He can speak his foreign language as well as his mother tongue. That’s really excellent.