English as the National Language, a good thing?

Today I read this Time Magazine essay which discusses the merits of making English officially the national language. The article itself is pretty well stated in my opinion and as someone who had basically no opinion on the subject prior to reading it, I’ll say that it swayed me to his side of the argument.

I’ve seen passing references around the Dope to the subject (the search function seems busted so forgive me if this has been debated specifically recently) and most seem to consider the concept to be racist and jingoistic. Even worse, it’s been portrayed as a Bush plan.

Frankly, calling it racist seems like a straw man to me. In no way does it exclude anyone of any race or creed, it only asks them to learn the language to become a citizen and to not require the state to make everything multi-lingual.

The linked article makes a somewhat compelling case that having a national language is a culturally unifying and economically strengthening trait, and unlike the idea of a national religion doesn’t trample any other groups. It’s possible to be bilingual while it’s impossible to be bireligous.

Anyways, I’m not knowledgable enough about the politics and law involved, but I’m sure there’s some strong opinions of the subject here. Let’s hear them.

There is no requirement for a state to do such a thing now.

The United States has a national language; English. Immigrants have learned it before and will learn it again. There is no compelling reason to legislate what is already true.

The idea of a national language strikes me as one of the singularly stupidest ideas to come down the pike in a long time. There’s already enormous social and economic pressure to learn the language. Very few people come to this country and purposefully avoid learning the language as it is, it’s just that for a lot of them, it takes time, and may never be completely succesful. Learning a new language is not easy, especially as you get older. And English is pretty difficult to acquire as a second language, from what I understand. How do you treat people who make an honest effort to learn the language, but simply can’t do it? Do they not get to immigrate, even if they’ve put forward an honest, good faith effort? And how do you determine how good someone’s English has to be before they get their citizenship? What if you have a family that wants to immigrate, but not all of them can pick up the language? Force grandma to stay back in the old country? The only tangible effect of a national language would be to either keep valuable, productive immigrants from moving here, because not all of their family can pass this arbitrary and useless test, or worse, the destruction of families, because not all of them can make it here, and (especially for those fleeing oppressive regimes) the ones who can get out can’t afford to stay.

Y’know, even before I clicked on the link, I knew Krauthammer was going to be the author. * ::: sigh ::: *

Pretty much his whole piece is a strawman.
If we wish to make English a requirement for naturalization, (a condition we imposed in the past with no silly laws regarding “official” language), I have no problem with that. However, he has turned the issue upside down. We do not print various government document in non-English languages in order to encourage multiculturalism, but to encourage people to participate in the country. If they can find government assistance in their own language, they are more likely to wish to participate in the culture of the country whereas if we make language a barrier, they are more likely to stick to their enclaves and never take part in our society, even hiding from “the government.”

The reality is that the overwhelming number of people who immigrate (legally or illegally) today make an effort to learn English. It is probably not racist to push for “English only” laws, but it does not solve any particular problem we currently suffer and it opens the door to discrimination on a massive scale.

The 2000 census figures for people who speak Spanish in their homes were:

Count           Speak English  Percentage
28,101,052	total	        1.00
14,349,796	very well	0.510649779
5,819,408	well	        0.207088617
5,130,400	poorly	        0.182569677
2,801,448	not at all	0.099691926

Census figures on Language, 2000 ( .pdf)
So over 71% of Spanish speakers have learned English well enough to get along in this country without putting up the artificial barrier of an “official” language.

It is also telling, to me, that no one who pushes this bugaboo actually says what the law will mean. (This was clear in the recent Senate games when a law was passed that said, in three different sections, three separate “clarifications” of how English was to be viewed.)

Does such a law prohibit translators for non-English speakers who appear in court as plaintiffs, defendants, or witnesses?
Does such a law prohibit speaking a foreign language on a public street?
Does such a law prohibit advertising in any language other than English?

All the proponents want the law, but few want to demonstrate just what the wording would be or how it would affect the lives of people residing in the U.S. It looks to me as though it is nothing but a shibboleth in which any bigot who encounters a person not speaking English can reach out to this nebulous law and begin harrassing that person for not being “American” enough–with the vague law as support for the bigotry.

But, what about all those people rattling off Spanishat a mile a minute? Who knows what they’re saying about us? Golly, they might be making fun of us behind our backs and we’d never know it!

True, but considering the momentum of the movement to nationalize the language I’m left to wonder if this is actually happening though. There seems to be an implied presence of a group trying to force states to accommodate their varied languages. Perhaps there’s a legal issue in which non-English speakers plead ignorance of their rights and laws or otherwise use the language barrier to burden the state.

I think the author of the essay explained it best in this section:

The point being that comparing the history of American immigration and the natural evolution to a common language doesn’t apply because 150 years ago it was people speaking a cacophony of languages as opposed to one giant, cohesive and geographically cohesive monolingual body of people.

Very good point. I do want to ask if you agree that having a strong predominant language is a good thing? That was the salient point I took from the essay was that the US benefits from the fact we have essentially a single language.

It’s fair to argue that there’s no point to nationalizing the language and that there’s no real threat imminent. Frankly, I would agree. However, presuming one were to show that a large segment of the population wasn’t adopting English and causing a division in the populace would it be reasonable to take some action to discourage that? Other than some amorphous “legislation” that defines the nation language what would you suggest as an alternative?

I suppose that if it could be shown that some large number of immigrants were refusing to participate in American society, it would be appropriate to “encourage” them to do so in some fashion.

The problem is that there is no serious evidence (aside from a lot of anecdotal horror stories based on local perceptions) that anything resembling that is actually occurring. (In fact, the one group of (ironically, Spanish speaking) immigrants who have actually made a deliberate choice to avoid English are the Cuban émigrés that I am fairly sure that Krauthammer would wish to see “protected” from any sort of “interference” by the government. (Look up any articles Krauthammer wrote on the Elian Gonzalez situation, in which Janet Reno and the Federal government are consistently portrayed as attacking and violating the poor refugee community in Miami.)

We have one: English, and the figures from the census bureau demonstrate that the incoming immigrants are aware of that and are doing what they can to learn English, today, just as the immigrants of the nioneteenth and early twentieth centuries attempted to learn it when they arrived.

Would the San Fransisco and Chicago (among others I’m sure) Chinatown’s qualify? The populations are small enough to not cause any problems it seems but I’d say they are a good example of people who’s ghetto refuses to incorporate into American society.

The extension being that with the exponentially higher numbers of Spanish speaking immigrants such a neighborhood might have a more measurably detrimental effect.

Incidentally, I knew nothing of the author and took his argument at face value and it read without any clear political bias to this moderate Democrat.

Agreed, and I don’t know that anyone is arguing we don’t. The question however is do you agree with the authors supposition that it’s a positive thing versus a neutral one?

Well, San Francisco’s Chinatown wouldn’t qualify as that currently. In the past, there wasn’t a refusal on the part of the Chinese residents therein to assimilate–prejudicial legislation prohibited them from so doing.

Today (well, the last time I was there was February 2005) there is no problem whatsoever with communicating with a shopkeeper in English. And Chinatown is more a landmark than a ghetto.

I think that a de facto national language is generally positive for the nation (aside from the fact that it breeds an entire nation of monolingual people who never seem to understand anything that is going on in the rest of the world since everything has to be translated for us–a particularly silly position for the world’s most heavily armed nation to find itself).

Since we already have a de facto monolingual nation, however, I find efforts to impose that condition in law to be silly.

For the record: Chinatown in San Francisco is not the result of an enclave of immigrants choosing to remain separate from the rest of the country. California passed laws at the end of the main wave of Chinese inmmigration that prohibited them from buying property and inveigled the U.S. Congress to pass laws prohibiting Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. The result was a ghetto created by the white community imposed on Chinese immigrants. In that forced situation, a Chinese-American culture arose that was separate from the mainstream (and which has, to less degree than some would believe) remained separate to this day. However, it requires torturing history to claim that that culture deliberately chose to segregate themselves from the American mainstream. Now, we have had examples of immigrant enclaves surviving for many years, but few survived beyond two generations and the evidence regarding the Central American immigrant wave provides no substance to the notion that that population at large is any different than other immigrant waves in hoping to assimilate. (There is a small group of people who resist “surrendering” their culture to the American mainstream. They get a lot of attention, but they do not appear to be representative of the typical immigrant.)

I’ve said it before, I think the best thing we could do for immigration is to DIVERSIFY it. We need immigrants, and we (should) want immigrants, but the more diverse the immigrant pool the more likely they are to successfully assimilate, and all without having to impose draconian measures to prevent people from keeping their native culture. Cut back on the number of Hispanic immigrants, and supplement it by increasing the number of Haitians/Brazillians/Vietnamese/Russians/Nigerians/Germans/etc.

Such legislation wouldn’t cut people off from their native culture. It would only make them learn our language in addition to their own.

Noah Webster is spinning in his grave.

We are not in England. We do not speak English. We speak American.

No, really. You might as well say that people in the Orange Free State speak Nederlands, or that Norwegians speak Swedish.

I imagine that’s the reason that “English” has never been declared our national language. But now, apparently, we’re supposed to learn & speak English.

Let’s see:
“proved” for “proven”
“lorry” for “truck”
“colour” for “color”
“tosser” for “jagoff”
“kerb” for “curb”

:Sigh: I guess I can do this…

How about a law that requires everyone to speak at least two languages, one of which is English.

Actually, to become a US citizen one “must be able to read, write, speak, and understand words in ordinary usage in the English language” although there are exceptions for age and for mental retardation. You can find all the requirements for citizenship here. I’ll also add that, even though British English is my native language and I’ve lived most of my life in the States and had a Bachelors Degree when I was applying for citizenship, I did have to demonstrate my ability to read, write and speak the language. To demonstrate my ability to write English, I was told to write, “The cat chases the dog.”

I’m not sure where I stand on this. This whole discussion confuses me a bit. To become a citizen one must be able to speak English, yet declaring English our national language is considered discriminatory. I did, however, want to clear up whether one must speak English to become a US citizen.

How would that latter bit change in English was a national language? The right to, say, a fair trial, as defined in the Sixth Amendment, holds even if a person can only speak Croatian. Is it really to the benefit of the state to refuse to proviude a Croatian defendant with an intrepreter?

Sorry, but the author is implying that Brooklyn is great but Quebec is great? That’s nuts. Has Charles Krauthammer ever been to Quebec?

Quebec isn’t French because a bunch of French people immigrated into an English country; Quebec has been French, in fact, since BEFORE Canada was an English country. It’s a stupid, stupid comparison that wholly misses the biggest, most massively importance difference between the French in Canada and Spanish-speakers in the USA; Spanish-speaking immigrants chose to join an English-speaking nation. Francophone Quebecois did not; they were equal partners in the very formation of Canada (at the founding of our country the population difference between French and English was not that great.)

It betrays appalling ignorance of Canada’s history. Canada WAS an officially English country for more than a hundred years, and it didn’t stop Quebec from being Quebec.

Differences in accent and a few variances in vocabulary don’t constitute a separate language. Webster specifically referred to the language Americans speak as “English,” so why you think he’d be rolling in his grave I can’t imagine.