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.