Editorials | July 2007
|USA: Bilingual or Multilingual?|
Domenico Maceri - PVNN
In the last Republican presidential debate all the candidates favored English becoming the official language of the United States. The only one to hesitate was John McCain, senator of Arizona. The strongest supporter was Tom Tancredo, Republican Congressman from Colorado. “We are becoming a bilingual country. And that is not good. Bilingual countries do not work” said Tancredo. The Italian-American Congressman has created a name for himself with his “crusade” against undocumented workers and bilingualism which he sees as the symbol of illegal immigration.
Tancredo’s sense of alarm would be much stronger if he realized that the United States is not only already a bilingual country but indeed a multilingual one. More than 300 languages are spoken in the United States. Some like Spanish have million of speakers, but others little more than a few hundred.
Many languages were present in the United States before its formation in 1776. Obviously the languages before the arrival of Europeans are those of Native Americans who had been in the country for many centuries. These languages are still alive but many are in danger of extinction. The vast majority of Americans may have never heard about Zuni, Cushite, Amharic, or Hidatsa, Apache, Hopi, etc. However, the country includes speakers of these languages.
Other European, Asian and Africans languages have enriched the linguistic landscape of America by means of immigration. The presence of this multilingual mosaic has not been a challenge to the dominance of English. Americans and immigrants accept the language of Shakespeare as de facto the national language of the country despite the use of other languages in daily life. The presence of these languages has not caused the ungluing of the United States as alarmists would have you believe. Immigrants have adopted and they continue to adopt English as the language of integration into American mainstream. Even in areas of the country with strong presences of Spanish like Miami, Florida, knowledge of English is indispensable.
Two years ago Los Angeles chose Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor. Villaraigosa campaigned in English and also used some Spanish, but it is the English language that elected him. Other politicians have used and continue to use their Spanish even if they do not know it well. John Kerry and George W. Bush both used their weak Spanish in the 2004 election. Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, began his campaign for re-election with advertising in Spanish.
Growing immigration and multilingualism pushed twenty-seven American states to declare English their official language. Three states have even virtually abolished bilingual education. However, these actions have changed little. They have not accelerated the process of immigrants to learn English nor have they reduced immigration.
The declaration of English as the official language of the country would have little effect but the negative impact would emerge as a psychological slap in the face to immigrants with the suggestion that other languages have no value and as a result neither do their speakers. The psychological slap in the face would be even more painful to Native Americans who had lived in the U.S. several centuries before the English language was introduced in the New World. Having taken their lands and decimated their populations now they would be told that even their languages, symbol of pride in their culture, are invalid.
The declaration of English as official language should in theory unify the nation but the truth is that United States became the most powerful nation in the world without needing these types of laws. Multilingualism reflects the energy of America which in spite of all its problems continues to attract people from all over the world. Once America achieves full monolingualism it will mean immigration has ended. America’s decline will therefore begin.
Domenico Maceri, PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. He is the author of a book on Pirandello, one on Spanish grammar, and another on Italian grammar. He has also published a number of articles in newspapers and magazines around the world, some of which have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.
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