Friday, May 19, 2006

Se Habla Ingles?

Should English be our national language? Yesterday, the Senate voted yes. Of course, they also voted that English is our nation’s “common and unifying language,” a different phrasing meant to be less restrictive than simply calling English our “national language.”

As usual with the Senate, rhetoric trumps practicality as both statements could now become law without either having any clearly defined intent. But let’s look at this issue anyway as it’s likely to stick around and generate a good deal of controversy.

The issue here is not whether our national language is English (it already is and will remain so) but whether we need to do something to keep Spanish from also becoming a national language. Already, throughout much of the Southwest, bilingualism is common. Just about every product on the shelves at my local grocery store has labels printed in both English and Spanish. Store signage is often in both languages. And there are many billboards printed in nothing but Spanish.

A Spanish-speaking immigrant could quite easily move to San Antonio, never learn English and live pretty well. They’d still run into more than a few problems, but there simply isn’t a significant incentive for immigrants to learn English down here.

But before we react too quickly, we must remember that first-generation immigrants refusing to learn English is not a new phenomenon. My mother-in-law tells stories of her Irish grandmother who spoke nothing but Gaelic—this worked for the old lady because her English-speaking children took care of her.

Much of the same happens today. I have yet to meet a child of Mexican immigrants who could not speak fluent English. And as long as the second-generation Americans speak English, I fail to see a major issue here.

The key, I think, is not to make sure every immigrant learns English but that every child of every immigrant grows up fluent in our language.

Sometimes I feel as if the entire issue of immigration (legal and illegal) is being approached with no sense of history. Do people really think that the nation’s Chinatowns and Little Italys and Irish districts and such were always cute little places to eat a good meal or have a cold beer? Most of those neighborhoods and regions are the vestiges of immigrant groups who refused to assimilate.

But in every case, the immigrant children, the natural-born citizens, pulled away, learned fluent English and melted into America.

The current wave of immigrants might be unprecedented in their numbers but I fully believe they are subject to the same forces of assimilation that have always been at work in this nation. It’s not a frictionless process. But as long as English is the language of our schools, our business, our entertainment and our politics, the children of Spanish-speakers will become English speakers.

Passing any laws, except perhaps pertaining to public schools, seems pointless.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My grandparents came from Germany and they understood what it meant to immigrate to the U.S. They made sure their sons and daughters spoke English and took the stance that the grandkids would not be taught German. They came to this country to become Americans and made sure they lived like Americans and spoke English.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Stephen Curtice said...

You mention the Southwest. In New Mexico, our state constitution provides that English AND Spanish are the official languages of the state.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On this one I have to disagree. Through government fiat we have coopted the forces of the market. By having ballots, etc. in more than one language we make it easier for immigrants (legal and illegal) to not assimilate and set ourselves up for a potential repeat of the ugly episodes in France of recent history. When the ballots are in many languages people come to expect consumer goods to not be in English. Traveling around the world one is often forced to learn the languages of another country to get by. Not so in the US. I think having English as a national language is a good thing. Requiring applicants for citizenship to learn English is a good thing too. Doing away with multi-lingual ballots would be a good thing as well. Harry Truman said we could not exist as a country with hyphenated americanisms. My great grandparents and grandparents who came from Ireland and Germany never said they Irish-Americans or German-Americans. They were Americans first who happened to be of German or Irish heritage.

5:48 PM  

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