Copyright © 1997 Henrietta W. Hay
The English Language . . . and others?
November 28, 1995
Parlez vous Franšaise? Well, no. Se habla Espa˝ol? N-o-o Sprechen zie Deutch? Uh uh. Do you speak English? Sure. Ah ha - we have a real red-blooded, patriotic American speaking English Only.
The recent election in Quebec made very clear the importance of language in the diversity vs. multiculturalism debate. The issue is heating up now that there is a prejudice-driven effort to have a constitutional amendment saying that we must speak English Only.
Newty had to make the Quebec election a political issue in the U. S. and spoke for one extreme. He said that bilingualism poses a threat to Americans. "Allowing bilingualism to continue is very dangerous. We should insist on English as a common language." And Molly Ivins cites a Texas legislator with an attitude who said, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me."
On the other side, Judy Lucero wrote in the Denver Post, "The attitude of the ugly white boys is that English must be declared the official language of the United States in order to keep the multiculturalism and bilingualism demons at bay."
Can't we find a rational middle ground in this? Well, that's doubtful. Americans in the 1990's are not famous for compromise in anything.
Through the years there have been several efforts to create an "official language." In 1923 Congress considered a bill to make the "American" language official, but it died in committee. In our own state the Colorado Constitution of 1876 provided that laws be published in English, Spanish and German. By 1988 we were considerably less tolerant and added an English Only amendment to our constitution. Of course it hasn't solved anything, but there wasn't much to solve.
More recently, Allentown, Pennsylvania passed an ordinance urging the exclusive use of English, but it didn't change anything either. So few documents were printed in other languages that the Mayor pegs the savings at $38. Associated Press says that advocates of a federal language law could find only 365 foreign-language documents out of 400,000 produced by the U. S. government in five years.
What's the big deal?
The whole issue hardly seems to pose an earth-shattering danger to the nation. English has always been, in fact if not in law, the official language of the United States. The Mayflower Compact, the first written constitution in America, was written in English with funny spelling. Our Founding Fathers were so mad at Great Britain that they considered selecting German or Hebrew or Greek as an official language of the new country, but English was the language of commerce, and they already knew it.
It has served us well. Walt Whitman said that, "Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all." One problem is that Mississippi is hard to understand in Maine, and Brooklyn sounds a bit strange in Colorado, but we have learned to cope.
Of course English is and should continue to be our common language. But it does not need to be encased in the concrete of a constitutional amendment. That process would be about as wasteful a use of time and resources as the flag burning amendment.
That does not deny the cultural value of bilingualism. Because I am language impaired, I know that I have missed a big part of the richness and understanding of other cultures. Charles V, King of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor in the 16th century had it right. "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."
Sure, English is the "unofficial official" language. and a lot of people need help learning it. As Diane Carman says, "The meager accommodation we make to new immigrants by providing bilingual education to help children learn English in some schools and bilingual instructions on some government forms is hardly the threat to the Republic that Gingrich suggests."
I like the he mother cat who was walking down the street with her kittens. They met a dog. The mother cat barked several times and the dog ran away. Turning to her kittens the cat said, "Now do you see how important it is to know a second language?"