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.