HispanicVista Columnists

US: An English Only Nation?

By Domenico Maceri


"We are an English-speaking nation" declared State Rep. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) as he tried to explain his new bill which would make English the official language of Arizona.

It's amazing how a politician can make a statement which has no basis in reality. Although it's true that English has been the dominant language in the US, many other languages have shaped America's linguistic landscape.

In the early years soon after the declaration of independence a number of languages were being used in the 13 original states. Because there was such great animosity against the English, German was even considered as the language for the new country.

     Indeed, German was so widely used in the eighteenth century that Benjamin Franklin complained about German-English bilingual street signs in Philadelphia. Franklin was also concerned that the prevalence of the German language might end up requiring interpreters in the Pennsylvania's Parliament.

Many other languages have been part of the America. Even today more than 300 foreign languages are spoken in the US. Some  like Spanish have millions of speakers, but there are others which may have only a few hundred speakers. Americans have probably never heard of Zuni, Cushite, Amharic, or Hidatsa. Yet, America holds among its inhabitants speakers of these languages. Arizona is home to a number of Native American languages including Apache, Cocopa, Havasapai, Hopi, Maricopa, Mohave, and Papago-Pima.

Arizona already tried making English the language of the state. However, the 1988 law was declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court because it infringed on freedom of speech.

One would think legislators have better things to do than spending valuable time on laws that have little or no benefit. Making English the official language is like killing a dead horse as has proved the case in the twenty-seven other states that have done it.

Generally, states have declared English their official language because of an increase in immigration and an impression that new arrivals do not want to learn English. The fear is that the US would fall apart without the glue represented by a common language.

The goal of English-only laws in the US is to send a strong message to newcomers that they need to learn English. A closely related phenomenon to English-only laws has been the voter-driven initiatives which have virtually eliminated bilingual education and imposed English-only instruction in California, Massachusetts, and Arizona. The message to immigrants has been to learn English and not expect services in foreign languages.

The vast majority of states which declared English the official language have done so through the initiative process. Voters were asked if English should be the language of the state and electors agreed by high margins. Who could be against the English language?

Certainly, not immigrants. Not knowing English means becoming invisible. When I first came to the US as a teen-ager, I worked for my uncle, a small contractor in New Jersey. I knew no English, but I clearly remember one instance when my uncle was talking about me with a customer as I was standing next to them. I had no idea what they were saying. Nothing bad I am sure, but although I was sixteen, I felt as powerless as a baby might feel as he tries to reach for an object and the hand does not go where itís supposed to go. How I wished I knew what they were saying.

Immigrants know only too well that English is the key to education which opens the door to becoming doctors, engineers, lawyers, or college professors. No one needs to tell immigrants they need to learn English.

Aside from their symbolic meaning, English-only laws in the US provide little benefit to the country. In fact, they have the opposite effect. The events of 9/11 clearly demonstrated that knowledge of other languages is indispensable to fight terrorism. English-only laws foster a climate of monolingualism which is dangerous to our safety.
Domenico Maceri (http://languageblogger.blogspot.com/),  PhD, UC Santa Barbara, a contributing columnist to HispanicVista.com (www.hispanicvista.com),  teaches foreign languages at Allan
Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.