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‘Official’ English: a solution in search of a problem

The huge debate/flap/consternation sweeping the country — over making English the “official” language of various locales, states, and the nation (over 87 percent favor this proposal) — is not only irrelevant, but also mostly nonsense. And there are a number of reasons why.

Starting with the most obvious, the entire process seems to be a solution in search of a problem. No real problem even exists. Though our constitution does not call for an “official” language, currently 82 percent of all Americans call English their native language; and 96 percent of all residents of our nation claim to speak English “well.” This leaves few of us who are not English speaking at all — and as past history would suggest, most of those are already striving to learn the language if they intend to live, work and participate in our nation’s culture.

Additionally, 30 states, and many other government locales, already have passed laws making English their “official” language.

Dozens of nations either have English as their primary language of choice, or are highly bilingual with English as their second language. This includes all the former colonies of the British Empire, the Caribbean countries, many African countries, Australia and even Malaysia — more than 1.9 billion people use English as their first tongue. The point being: English does not need help from advocates to remain the viable first choice of Americans, and is in no danger of being suppressed — here in America, or anywhere else for that matter.

Of even more significance are the countries that are bilingual — notably such counties as Canada (which has French as a second language), India, the Philippines and Switzerland (where at least three languages are commonly spoken). And they all get along just fine with that language diversity. It is a lesson apparently lost on the “official” language folks. What’s more, many words and phrases from the foreign languages that these people seem to object to have become imbedded and a colorful part of our own English language.

The fact is, English is the preferred language of many sciences, commerce and other international activities. Of note is the airline industry. English is the official language of aviation worldwide. The International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, began working on English proficiency requirements in 2000, four years after a midair collision over India between a Saudi airliner and a Kazakh cargo plane. Investigators said an English language barrier was a contributing factor to the crash. The ICAO put the English requirements for private and commercial flight into effect in 2008, but has allowed some countries until March 2011 to implement them. The point of this is that those who wish to participate in business and their community activity (notably Hispanic immigrants who seem to be the focus of this debate), will want to learn English, will try to learn English … and will eventually be fluent in our native tongue.

In fact, despite all the inflammatory rhetoric about their lack of  proficiency in English, the truth is they are following the path that all immigrants to our nation have taken, and they are doing it with essentially the same speed and efficacy as the tens of millions who came here before them. Generally, the first generation comes with little or no proficiency; the next generation is typically bilingual (often speaking the original language in the home, and developing fluency outside the home; and the third generation is as American (language-wise) as apple pie. So it is with our recent immigrants.

Supporting this view, according to the 1990 Census, 13.8 percent of U.S. residents spoke some non-English language at home. Only 2.9 percent, or 6.7 million people, did not speak English at all, or could not speak it well. Again, a solution in search of a problem.

This entire debate was resurrected here when a tiny community in our state (Lino Lakes) passed an ordinance that English will be the official language of that town. The community doesn’t have any significant population of non-English speaking residents, so obviously this is a xenophobic action that was without merit. The definition of “xenophobia” is so relevant to this discussion, it is worthy of repeating: Xenophobia is the uncontrollable fear of foreigners. It comes from the Greek word xenos, meaning “stranger,” “foreigner.”

Indeed, we have succeeded just fine as a nation for over 200 years without designating English as an “official” language. We have done well by having all our new immigrants learn English, and over a period of a couple of generations be integrated into our culture and commerce. This leads me to believe there is only one possible explanation for this irrational thrust to create an “official’ language, when one isn’t needed. Estas personas son muy estupidas (look it up) … or uno para la prensa española.

Myles Spicer of Minnetonka has spent his business career as a professional writer and owned several successful ad agencies over the past 45 years.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Stephan Flister on 08/10/2010 - 11:02 am.

    The ‘problem’ being solved here is the desperate need of some to feel as if they are better than others. It has nothing to do with English.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/10/2010 - 11:32 am.

    Solution to the need to feel superior to others: Start each day looking at the face in the mirror and ask that person (yourself, obviously) “What did you do that improved the lives of those around you and your own life yesterday; what did you do to make the world a better place? What will you do today?”

    The only way to consider yourself a decent and worthwhile person is to be able to provide positive answers to those questions. (Being something or other doesn’t count, only doing.)

    If your answer to those questions is “nothing,” then you don’t deserve to be taking up the space you occupy on this planet and no amount of trying to identify some group (or groups) that you can look down on and feel superior to makes up for your own worthlessness nor your own deep-seated, abiding fear that you are, indeed, worthless.

    Of course your worthlessness is quite easy to remedy. DO SOMETHING WORTHWHILE! If you can’t imagine how you might do that, any number of volunteer organizations would be happy to assist you.

    Even if you can’t move, can’t speak, can’t communicate, you can still send warmth and love to surround others who may be in need (or pray for them, if you prefer). None of us are incapable of doing worthwhile things.

    FAR too many of us choose never to do them, preferring, instead, to complain bitterly that the world is “going to hell” because of everyone else.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/10/2010 - 11:36 am.

    Before the “English Only” movement started, a number of states and territories already were officially bilingual. Hawaii has English and Hawaiian as official languages, and Puerto Rico is officially bi-lingual although most official documents are originally in Spanish. Louisiana publishes documents in French, and laws in New Mexico are also printed in Spanish.

    I would say English has done just fine in the face of the competition.

  4. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 08/10/2010 - 03:35 pm.

    Greg, man, you kind of got off the topic there. And I think many who you would despise would say they are doing good everyday. I suspect most people think that of themselves.

  5. Submitted by Bruce Kvam on 08/10/2010 - 04:48 pm.

    As someone who has studied Russian, German, French and Japanese, I don’t consider myself xenophobic. English is obviously the preferred language of the country, and in many sectors of international trade, science and technology.

    The only “defense” English needs is when someone makes an unreasonable demand for something to be translated into another language. That’s not happening in Lino Lakes, so it’s apparently just the pet peeve of someone in Lino Lakes. Personal annoyances are bad excuses for laws.

    Translation should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Hospitals that care for people who speak other languages by necessity will need translators to communicate important information that helps to keep all of us healthy. But we don’t need to have street signs in Spanish; anyone driving here should have a license and be able to read well enough to pass the written test.

    But this is hardly the first generation of immigrants who hasn’t learned English. How many of us have grandparents or great-grandparents who never bothered to learn English, and spoke German, Swedish or Norwegian until their dying day?

    As long as the kids are learning English it doesn’t matter. And that’s where we need to put our foot down: learning English should be job one for immigrant children. It’s counterproductive and ultimately self-defeating to coddle them by teaching them school subjects in their native language. Childhood is the best time to learn a language; if you don’t pick it then you will always be marked as an outsider.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/10/2010 - 08:11 pm.

    Sorry to disappoint you, Bill, but I don’t despise anyone. I was only trying to explain why some among us feel the need to identify others to whom they can feel superior (their own deep-seated questions about their own worth) and how they might overcome those uncomfortable internal questions and, at the same time, do some good in the world.

    If you think that you are doing good in the world and still feel the need to identify others to whom you can feel superior, then obviously you are not REALLY doing good at all, but likely just taking actions to further underline your own need to feel superior.

    If that’s the case, it’s time to look in that good old mirror for the source of your sense of worthlessness.

  7. Submitted by John Olson on 08/10/2010 - 08:11 pm.

    The Lino Lakes ordinance (I suspect) was nothing more than a ruse for a couple of council members and the city to get free publicity.

    How many times have we seen a city council over the decades do “something” and have the regional (and sometimes national) media fawning all over it? In our 24/7 newscycle, folks seem to be willing to try just about anything to have their egos inflated a bit.

  8. Submitted by myles spicer on 08/11/2010 - 08:43 am.

    As an add on to the Kvam comment, I was born in 1933, and still clearly remember hearing (on the radio), Sunday sermons being broadcast IN SWEDISH!
    I recall no outcry, complaints or urging to get rid of that language in our society in the name of an “official” English language — but then the Swedes were white, which explains a lot of what is going on today.

  9. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/13/2010 - 12:17 pm.

    I’ve lived in Japan and have been back to visit thirteen times for periods of up to three months, and even when I first went there over 30 years ago, there were plenty of signs and information pamphlets in English, as well as four daily English-language newspapers and the broadcasts of the Far Eastern Network easily receivable on any radio.

    Now Japanese is spoken nowhere but Japan, so if anyone should feel insecure about their native language, it’s the Japanese, but not once have I heard a Japanese person complain about the English signage, the English-language information pamphlets available at government offices, the English-language websites that local governments put up providing civic information for foreign residents, or the fact owners of stereo TVs can hear foreign programming in its original language if they choose.

    Not only that–in recent years, I’ve started to signs and pamphlets in Chinese and Korean (to meet the needs of tourists and business people from those newly prospering countries) and even Portuguese, due to the reverse migration of the descendants of Japanese peasants who migrated to Brazil a few generations ago.

    You see, the Japanese government, for all its faults, believes that it’s more important to get vital information out than to pretend that everyone is going to step off the plane speaking Japanese right away. What a concept!

    Having lived on the West Coast, I can confirm that Latino immigrants are following others in switching to English. While living in a small town in Oregon, I happened to walk past a house with some brown-skinned children playing in the front yard. They were speaking English. The town was within a few miles of an Indian reservation, so I assumed that the family had moved into town from there. Just then, the front door opened, and their mother started calling them into the house–in Spanish.

    I saw this again and again, young Latinos who spoke English without an accent. Furthermore, a lot of the young Latinos had Anglo boyfriends or girlfriends, and if any of those couples get married, guess what language their children will grow up with.

    Meanwhile, I happened to see an Internet article a few months ago about retirement in Mexico. This article was careful to assure readers that they could live in Mexico without learning Spanish.

    Ah, the hypocrisy.

  10. Submitted by myles spicer on 08/16/2010 - 10:16 am.

    Karen makes an important point. The reason companies (and the private sector)is bilingual is NOT to be condescending or subsurvient to other cultures… it is because they want to sell product or services to multiple markets.

    The same reason Japan has signs in English. They want tourism.

    To be congenial language-wise is not a weakness, it is a value added feature of communities, companies, and marketing.

  11. Submitted by Brian Barker on 08/20/2010 - 06:11 am.

    English, without doubt is not the international language. More people speak Mandarin Chinese and Spanish now.

    Did you know that the biggest air crash in the World was caused by the failure of English, because of its use as the language of air traffic control? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgrRG6mriLU

    Another near-miss happened in JFK airport, as well. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xu3zNFNbRxI

    We need a sensible practical solution and Esperanto is the only long-term one available. Let us oppose the linguistic imperialism of English.

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