English: Only Official US Language?

I bring this up because of the latest trend I see. Almost everywhere I go in my neighborhood (very close to Philadelphia PA) services are now provided in both English and Spanish. ATMs, advertisments on the Food network, state services, you name it…they are all providing Spanish versions.

My goal here is not to offend anyone, but I think this practice is a bad idea. Instead of promoting integration between races by basically forcing people to learn English so we’re all speaking the same language, people are now able to live here without ever learning a word. You can do your banking, your shopping, and as far as I know most state and federal services without speaking English. How did this happen? When did Spanish become an official language of the US? Sure I understand there are many Spanish speaking people in the US. But I also understand how important it is to integrate into the society you’ve become a part of, and the primary way to do that is to learn the language. If we make it easy not to, who will bother?

My apologies if I have offended anyone, truely it was not my intention. I am genuinely curious what everyone thinks about this trend, good or bad.

The U.S. doesn’t have an official language. English is a de facto “official” language from its usage in official documents, but it’s not specified by law.

Providing communication in Spanish (or other languages suitable to a given population) makes it easier for non-English speakers to participate in society. Eventually they, or their offspring, will learn English. But limiting everything to English more effectively serves to shut people out of some things than to teach them English.

Wouldn’t hurt English speakers to learn some other languages as well.

Me and a friend had a long debate about this once. His primary point was that it seemed ridiculous that people would move here and not even make an effort to learn the commonly used native language. Of course, my problem with that is that there are some people who come here in their late 60s simply to be with family and friends, and it seems unreasonable to try and force them to learn the language. There is going to be no satisfactory way to try and force people to learn the native language, so the best thing to do, at least from my point of view, is to try and accomodate as best as one can without spending an excess amount of time or resources in doing so.

Anybody who seriously wants a good job or to get ahead in life will, that’s who.

As a matter of fact, anyone here in Panama who really wants to get ahead or get a top job pretty much has to learn English too - as do people in much of the rest of the world.

This is hardly new - it happened with other immigrant groups too. In New York, there were (and to some extent still are) neighborhoods where the store signs and everything else were in Yiddish, Chinese, etc.

The younger generation learns English, their elders may not. The grandmother of one of my best friends, from Italy, never really learned to speak English to the day she died, after many decades in the country.

I find this trend a little disturbing as well. Here in the Twin Cities, it was stated on a popular radio show that there were approximately 108 different languages in the public school system. I’m not sure where they dug the numbers up, but I can believe that there its probably up there. We have a fairly high Asian and African immigrant population here.
It gets to the point where I wonder if normal english speaking students are being somewhat left behind in terms of progress because of the concentration on these new non-english speaking students.
I’m not entirely sure if you can mandate that everyone learns English before coming here or within a time limit. Earlier immigrants (Irish, Polish, Italian, etc…) were not required to do it after all and they seem fine now.

There is no official language of the US. Alternate translations are being provided (in general) for the best reason of all: money. Banks do it to garner more customers. Hospitals do it to treat patients more effectively. And so on.

Exactly what is the factual general question you’re asking?

  1. Learning to speak another language is not an automatic thing. Some people prove quite talented at second language acquisition, and others find it impossible. You can no more force someone to learn English than you can force them to lose weight as a requirement for citizenship.

  2. Go to various places in this country and you will find communities where Dutch or German or Vietnamese is spoken by a large percentage of the population. You will even find people who have lived in such communities most or all of their lives and still do not speak much English. I spent a very pleasant Easter one year with my GF’s aunt and uncle, who have lived in Kansas for 45 years and speak only Croatian. Yet they manage to be productive, tax-paying citizens who make their fair contribution to society.

  3. Even if you could pass a law specifying English as the official language of the United States, you’re stuck with the problem of identifying which dialects are, and which are not, to be considered “English”. What about Ebonics? Gullah? Louisiana Creole? Spanglish? Where do you draw the line? Do we form a new government agency (as in France) responsible for policing the use of language, publishing an “official” English dictionary, and penalizing anyone who publishes text that includes “non-English” words? Sure, high school English teachers across the nation would be drunk for a month from celebrating, but you’d be effectively constricting the natural development of one of the richest and most versatile languages in history.

We need not be concerned with the survival of English. People who choose to live in the United States without having learned the language pay the penalty every day in terms of lost opportunities. Opportunities for gainful employment, for education, for independence, and a host of other things. Those who truly want to enjoy these opportunities, to live the American Dream, will learn English.

Kudos to Gary T and to Fish for their answers.

In The United States we talk a lot about letting something called “the market” decide things–except, that is, when the market does decide things and we don’t like what it decided. Interestingly, when people call for regulation to abolish what people have decided collectively to do, people often resort to talk about “tradition” and “values”–the same sort of rhetoric which is used to support the market when it gives results which aren’t found objectionable.

When a bank–or whoever–chooses to use another language than English, or a language in addition to English, that is a market-driven decision. They do so because they are facing facts as to how conditions are.

Yes, people who are not native speakers of English have been coming to this country for centuries and yes, such people often received little or no accomodation in the past. The result was enclaves of people who did not interact effectively with the population at large. As I understand it, there are still a fair number of people in New York and Chicago who speak fluent Polish or Russian but who cannot deal effectively in English. When I was attending a Catholic high school in St. Louis, I had Italian classmates whose parents spoke a kind of Chico Marx-style parody of English, and that with difficulty.

In earlier times the phenomenon was much more pronounced. In the late 19th Century, it is said, there were large parts of St. Louis where it was much less common to hear English spoken than German. The ACLU had its origin in a case founder Roger Baldwin took during World War I; a man in St. Louis was walking down the street when he saw his father sitting on the front porch, and he said good morning to him. A policeman overheard and arrested him. The man’s father was a German immigrant and he had addressed him in his accustomed tongue at a time when speaking German in public was illegal. One may not have been able to find bank signs in Spanish in those days, but you may be assured there were many signs around town-- as well as newspapers, magazines, etc.–in German.

As society has become increasingly complex and mobile, the pressure to assimilate and learn English has increased, as has the opportunity. At the same time, however, the pressure has also grown for governments and businesses to accomodate non-speakers while they are learning English, and not just in isolated neighborhoods.

Why does this upset people? Mostly, I expect, it is a matter of whose ox is being gored. The in-laws of a friend of mine complain bitterly that their old parish in South St. Louis currently offers Masses in Vietnamese. When they were growing up in the neighborhood, the same church held services in Polish, but somehow that was different. They, needless to say, are of Polish extraction.

Kizarvexius posted his remarks as I was drafting mine.

A nitpick: The United States does require facility in English as a requirement for citizenship. I say this as an attorney who sometimes play-acts the role of a citizenship examiner for older immigrants who are studying for their exam at a nonprofit organization. While the U.S. does not require fluency in the language, one has to be able to struggle through an oral examination given in the language, and, generally, to show that you can handle reading and understanding such simple statements as “exit” or “see other side”.

slipster is quite right. I was thinking more along the lines of countering people who might advocate depriving someone of citizenship for not speaking English, rather than the case of someone applying for citizenship. Didn’t make myself clear.

While a couple of cretinous states have attempted to pass “English only” and “Official English” laws (I don’t recall how many have succeeded), the state of New Mexico does officially recognize both English and Spanish–and it has since it was a territory.

BTW, Bongmaster, this OP or something similar has been raised several times in the last year alone in various of the SDMB forums (sometimes under the rubric of “bilingual education”).

The Congress, the Federal Courts, the Military, most of the Civilian Executive Branch either explicitly or implicitly, and independent public entities like the Postal Service and the Federal Reserve ALREADY have English be their legal language of record. What else do we need?

As mentioned by other posters, “officialization” means nothing regarding the prevalence of multilingual banks/markets/TV Stations. Telemundo and Univisión will broadcast Colombian soap operas as long as advertisers pay, and Rooms-to-Go and Ovaltine will place those ads in Spanish, as long as Spanish-speakers have disposable incomes (For the same prices, would you rather buy from a merchant that acknowledges you exist, or from one that thinks you are just part of an undifferentiated mass?). In the bank, as long as the bank’s communications with the Federal Reserve and the FDIC remain in English, it’s free to communicate with a customer exclusively in Xhosa or Tamil if it helps get more business in the door. (Conversely, however, and for exactly the same reasons, a business open to the general public should make sure that at any given time they should have on duty staff that can be expected to communicate in the common language of the majority of the greater community. It just makes business sense.)

“Officialization” would only contribute marginally to “accelerate integration”. As things are, if you want to get ahead and make it big, you NEED the English. That’s motivator enough for most of us. As to state agency use of other languages, well, even where there is a legal language of record, use of another one is a policy decision based on what the authorities feels is more cost-effective or protects the legal rights of the greatest possible number of people – whether they are right or wrong about THAT is another story. In the Federal level, for instance, English IS the legal language of record of the Federal Courts… but if there is in a trial a defendant who does not master English, you can bet they’ll find a translator, official language of record or no official language of record.

Finally, one small comment – we are not typing this in Franco-Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Briton or Latin. Languages evolve, cultures evolve. If by the year 2103 the USA endures as a primarily Spanish-speaking nation… so what? as long as it still “holds these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and have been endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”, it’ll be one fine nation to live in.

You should take a lesson of European nations where being trilingual is something NORMAL. What happened to the melting pot? Where I live, the primary language is French. I’m French Canadian and French is my mother tongue. I do quite nicely when expressing myself in English, thank you very much. What happened to the melting pot?

I’m equally able to get along in Greek, Italian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Spanish. In a pinch, I know when I’m being told off in Chinese (I’ve worked at a casino, which helps alot).

And speaking of Chinese, it’s also available on our ATM machines as a choice of languages, as well as English and French.

Embrace it. You’re not gonna change it. I only wish you would live in a place like Quebec where ENGLISH is (ridiculously) threatened for the sake of protecting another language. Then you’d realize how lucky you are.

Who the fuck do you think you are anyway? Sorry … must be because I’m quebecoise, but I think you’re very close-minded. How dare you impede another language because you think yours is the only one you need. Take a look at your population and who pays the gov’t tax dollars.

Hasta Luego, Bonsoir, Shalom, and SEE Y’ALL LATER

Cheeky, I don’t think the OP was meant to offend you…

…so I think you can calm down a little bit. I live in a rather small (and thus close-minded) town where everyone likes to rant and rave about “If you’re going to live in our country, speak our language.” Of course, there is equal ignorance on both sides of this debate, but what it really comes down to is that there is no debate at all-people will speak whatever language they want to speak based on whether they want to learn a different language or not. There is really not much you can do about it, I think. And as long as it doesn’t greatly inconvenience me as an English speaker, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass whether you speak pig-Yiddish or hang signs up in your store in haxor.

I found that most of the “Older generations” of immigrants were quite receptive to learning English. My folks came from Yugoslavia. My father via England (in WWII) and my mother directly.
When I asked them how they learned English they replied “what choice did I have, if I wanted to live here I had to.”

Ironically I spoke Serbo-Croat till I was about 4. I can distinctly remember my mother tellng me “Ok from now on only English.” To this day I can’t speak Serb-Croat. My Brothers and Sister still do. The reason my folks gave was my brother had a very bad time in school." (My other brother and sister didn’t), so mum told me “English Only.”

I found a lot of the older generations say immigrated before late 1960s say you SHOULD learn English. It is the later group that doesn’t seem interested. My former landlord was from Poland (older lady)and she did a pretty good job with English, but she still insitsted that if I ever heard her use English wrong to correct her as she didn’t want to be embarrased. I had an older German Lady that worked for me that would say the same thing. She was saying “REE-nes-ence” Hotel for “Ren-a-saunce” Hotel and she was horrified no one corrected her.

When I lived in the keys I found the latinos EXCEPT CUBANS easily picked up English but not CUBANS. When we would interview for jobs it was the Cubans that spoke no English or very badly. The Puerto Ricans and Mexicans and Hatians generally did excellent speaking English. So I think there may be a culture thing as well.

Montreal lost a lot of businesses to Toronto with their French first policy, so economics does come into play. Here in Chicago Spanish speakers number about 1 Million.(US Census Data 2000) But we have THREE Spanish TV stations out of 11 commercial. So that is about 1 out of 9 uses Spanish but 27% of commercial TV stations are Spanish so economics do factor into it.

I’ll start by noting that Haitians are neither Latinos nor speakers of Spanish.

At any rate, if you’re worried about English disappearing, best start learning another language, bub. This is a democracy. The market will provide what it needs to, and official language or no (and why is the ridiculous myth that the US has an official language so tenacious?) the government is charged with protecting everyone’s rights.

Don’t like it? Tough. There are plenty of countries whose governments actively oppress minority languages. Move to one of those.

Of course, you’ll have to learn their language first.

(From a proud speaker of Spanish and French and a competent stumble-arounder in Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese.)

Since the OP asked for opinions on this trend, I think it’s great! I’d like to see the US become a truly multilingual country, as crazy as that sounds. I’d like to see people who aren’t fluent in English (but who are fluent in another language, before I get any sly remarks) elected to a high office.

I don’t even speak any other languages, and I think I probably would if English didn’t have such an unofficial stranglehold on this country.

The factual questions here have been answered, so I’ll close this thread. The larger question of what we should do about the language situation is debatable and not amenable to factual answers. I direct your attention to the Great Debates forum.

moderator GQ