ProEnglish: defending America against immigrant languages…

A lot of heated issues always surround a typical election, abortion, gay marriage, healthcare, the economy, etc etc…. the list goes on but one issue I’ve never encountered is “Language”.

2008-09-05_0959Earlier today I encountered the ad at right on a blog, which would take you here if you were to click it.

In a nutshell the people behind this are looking to pass laws that reinforce English as the official language of the United States and also repeal laws/guidelines (i.e. Executive Order 13166) aimed at trying to expand translation of information materials by state & municipal governments. At the end of the day they’re paranoid that all the immigrants are just going to stick to their mother tongue and never bother to learn English.

Which of course will equal the death of English as a language in the United States. Right? I’m not so sure… Obama dared to suggest that people learn Spanish which is why his picture is in the ad (interestingly enough an idea they don’t disagree with – they actually agree it’s good to learn other languages). Basically their big demand is make English the official language of the US because that will fix everything.

At the end up the day there’s some kernel of truth to the concern. But it’s not about the “death” of English. Rather it’s how the culture of a city/community develops.

Language is just about the biggest barrier to integration in a community. I can disagree with your politics, your religion, even your haircut, but chances are we can find common ground somewhere. But if we can’t communicate easily or effectively the chances of us becoming friendly or even neighbourly diminishes greatly. Eventually pockets develop where people of similar cultures congregate and that’s where integration slows and instead communities close ranks on each other.
The reality though, I think, is the concern about the fragmentation over languages is somewhat self limiting, and it would never get the momentun needed where English would stop being the common language of the United States.
Why? The education system. So long as the education system stays in the common or official language(s) of the country, and attendance by school age children is mandatory,  then there is already some mandated English education.
Yes, some of the older immigrants will likely never learn the local common language – admittedly picking up a language later in life is much more difficult. And my guess, these people not learning the language has zero to little effect on the people up in arms about it. The children of these immigrants however? they will end up learning the common language of the country they’re in. I use the term self-limiting because for the ProEnglish movement’s worst nightmare to come true the US would basically have to open the floodgates of immigration so that Adult immigrants who don’t speak English would grow to rival the number of existing adults in America who speak English… likely not going to happen.
It’s certainly a narrow line to walk and it harkens back to a post I did  a couple of years ago (“Your culture vs. “Our Culture“) wondering where it’s appropriate to draw the line between acceptance of an individual’s culture or beliefs over the perceived culture of a nation. As a country grows and the makeup of it’s population changes, becomes more diverse how much energy should be put into preserving the previous culture versus accepting and encouraging the evolution of the present day culture.
There is of course, no answer to this dilema but it’s an interesting question to keep in mind as you look at how you interact (or don’t) with diverse communities from day-to-day.
For me, I feel strongly that people should be open to learning as many languages as they can, regardless of whether you already speak the local language. At the very least when travelling try to learn at least a few of the “common courtesy” words (please, thank you, excuse me, 1 beer please, etc.) for the region they’re in.
If you’re moving to a new country I think it’s great to learn the local language(s), not just so you can communicate but so you can fully experience the benefits and culture of your new home. When I encounter someone in downtown Toronto who can’t speak English I don’t curse them for not integrating but there are times where I know I’ve missed opportunities to probably have an interesting conversation and learn something.
Language is a two-way street, the ProEnglish folks could probably learn a thing or two by picking up a new language and getting to know the people they fear – I’m sure they’re quite nice.
  • tinku

    I agree with what you are saying. As I imagine you can appreciate (being in an officially bilingual country), making a language official doesn’t really increase adoption of that language. How many English Canadians outside Quebec/NB speak fluent French? My sister lives in Switz with 5 official languages but most folks speak only 2, and that is b/c they learn it in school.

    As someone who immigrated to Canada speaking a non-English language I fully agree that not speaking the local language isolates people from the larger community they live in and I think that is a loss. People are going to speak whatever they want in their own homes but I agree that everyone should get a formal education in the primary language(s) of that country/region so they can be participate in society more fully.

    Great post.

  • Delighted Scribbler

    I agree with tinku. Making a language official doesn’t mean the society will adopt said language.

    As for learning the language of the land, well that’s just common sense to enhance your life experience. But since when is common sense legally required?

    Ordinary people make (legal) bad decisions for themselves all the time: overeating, dropping out of school as soon as they legally can, drinking themselves blind, going home with strangers… need I go on?

    As long as not speaking the most common language doesn’t violate the rights of others, why make is a legislative matter?