SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — “It gives the idea that any other language is excluded,” stated Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in reaction to a recently passed amendment that would make English the “national language of the United States.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada labeled the amendment “racist.” Both characterizations have a measure of truth. If the amendment becomes law, it will have the same minor effect we have seen in the 27 American states that have already passed laws declaring English the official language.
Generally, declarations of English as the official language occur because of rising immigration and concern that new arrivals don’t want to learn English.
Who could be against the English language? Certainly, not immigrants. They realize very well the need to learn English. Not knowing English means becoming invisible. Immigrants know only too well that English is the key to education that opens doors to becoming doctors, engineers, lawyers or college professors.
Immigrants flock to English classes because they are keenly aware that this new skill will enable them to leave menial work behind and become part of the American social and political system.
American history tells us that immigrants learn English and Americanize, and that within a generation or two their ancestors’ culture is gone. This is most visible with language. Second- and third-generation Hispanics struggle in my community college Spanish classes alongside other Americans. The Spanish of their ancestors has vanished.
So, official legislation on English is mostly meaningless, but it does have a psychological impact. For some, it’s a boost since it sends a clear message that English is the language of the country. More than 300 languages are spoken in the U.S. to various degrees. Some languages are spoken by small groups of people, but others like Spanish have millions of speakers. Thus English could be appropriately described as the dominant language of the U.S.
Still, the negative impact of legislating an official language is that it is a slap in the face to immigrants. Since the U.S. is a country made up of people from every corner of the globe, official-English legislation tells them their languages are not valid and, hence, neither are they.
The slap in the face is much more painful to Native Americans whose ancestors lived in North America long before the first English (or Spanish) word was ever uttered here.
Having taken the land away from Native Americans and having decimated their population, we’re now telling them that even their languages, symbols of pride in their culture, are not valid.
While official-English laws have few practical consequences, sometimes visible effects can be traced to this kind of legislation. Some companies follow suit and declare their job sites English-only areas. That may infringe on people’s rights. A number of companies have been sued after employees claimed that their bosses told them to speak only in English for no or legal reason. Some companies have had to pay considerable sums of money in damages to employees whose language rights have been violated.
The damage caused by English-only laws affects the U.S. in other ways by devaluing and ignoring other languages. The tragic events of 9/11 revealed that our vulnerability to terrorists is due in no small part to our linguistic limitations.
U.S. government agencies collect huge amounts of data in many languages that often is not analyzed in a timely fashion because we lack enough qualified people fluent in foreign languages.
While declaring English the national language is supposed to make the country unified, the fact is that the U.S. has managed to become the most powerful country in the world without English-only laws.
When the U.S. Senate wastes time debating the role of English, you have to wonder what important issues they are not addressing. Immigration reform? Iraq?
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