Is English Only a Battle to Fight?

Crossposted at The Rockefeller Republican

I am a proud 5th generation American. In the 1860’s my ancestors came to New England from French Canada and settled in Massachusetts. My grandmother grew up speaking French. My mother went to a French grammar school and till the day she died my great-grandmother spoke with a slight French accent. I relate all of this not to give a personal history but because it pertains to a debate that is always raging in conservative circles. Should English be made our official language? Too often Republicans try to fight a battle they do not need to, while ignoring one that could be won. We have seen the failings of excessive multiculturalism, but instead of alienating a growing and voting demographic, we should be working to rebuild the American melting pot of the early 20th century.

First of all, English is not going anywhere in America, or throughout the world. Because it is so widely spoken, it has often been referred to as the world language of the modern era. English is the language most often studied as a foreign language in Europe (by 89% of schoolchildren), followed by French (32%). It is, by international treaty, the official language for aerial and maritime communications. English is an official language of the United Nations and many other international organizations, including the International Olympic Committee. According to 2006 U.S. census 84% of Americans speak it. Clearly, we live in a safely English-speaking world. The complaint is that too often immigrants to the US do not speak it, or do not speak it well enough. However, the facts do not bear this out.Language diversity has always been a significant part of American culture. As early as 1664, when the island of Manhattan was ceded from the Dutch to the British, 18 different tongues were spoken there. In the 1790 census, German Americans accounted for 8.6 percent of the population – roughly the same proportion of modern Hispanic Americans at 9.0 percent. In the 1890 census, there were almost 5 times as many non-English speakers than in the 1990 census. Significant groups of French speakers remained in Louisiana and northern New England for decades. However, they gradually turned to English – not because laws were passed, but because of social pressure from industrialization, migration and mass media. If MTV, Disney and CNN are in English the people will follow.

Language acquisition is generational. Just as my mother spoke French as a child and I can barely conjugate a French verb, nearly all of Hispanic adults born in the United States of immigrant parents report they are fluent in English. By contrast, only a small minority of their parents describe themselves as fluent. Immigrants are behaving just like previous generations of immigrants did who spoke Dutch, Swedish, German, Italian, Polish, Russian, French, Greek, Yiddish, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Persian, and Ukrainian. Legislating English as the official language of the U.S., is redundant. There is no reason to pass laws requiring people to do what they are already doing. Instead of picking fights with recent immigrants working daily double-shifts at the local chain restaurant to make a living, we should be standing for the promotion of uniquely American ideas and ideals in our schools and society at large. While the “hate America” crowd is often over-hyped, it does exist, and we won’t defeat them by pushing useless laws. We need to raise a generation of Americans who value their heritage.

We offer the world something special, as evidenced by the number of people who want to come here. And we do a better job than most in assimilating new people into our unique culture, but we could be doing better. We should be promoting a healthy nationalism. What is it that makes us Americans? It is our lack of an official caste system, our reverence for the Bill of Rights, our innate Self-sufficiency, our freedom of but not from religion. If we as a nation focused more on indoctrinating our youth with a greater sense of who they are as Americans we would be doing them a great service. Bringing real civics back to our schools will do more to keep our heritage alive, than repeatedly pushing the English only mantra.