Arts & Living
By Domenico Maceri
The letter writer to a major newspaper railed against Cruz Bustamante, lieutenant governor of California, for speaking a language which is not part of the state constitution. In the writer's mind, by giving a speech in English and then in Spanish, Bustamante was subverting English, the official language of California. Of course, Bustamante did nothing illegal. The first amendment provides freedom of speech. Bustamante was, in fact, reflecting the multilingualism of the state and also of the country.No one would deny that English is the dominant language of California and indeed the entire U.S. However, the country's history has been one of many languages. Spanish, Italian, French, German, Apache, Cherokee, and other languages have all been part of the American linguistic landscape. More than 300 languages are currently spoken in the U.S. Some have very small numbers of speakers. Americans have probably never heard of Zuni, Cushite, Amharic, or Hidatsa. Yet, America holds among its inhabitants speakers of these languages. But Spanish is without a doubt the main "competitor" to English these days.The use of Spanish is visible in all areas of American culture. Major American companies use Spanish to attract customers. AT&T and other phone companies ask you to choose between English and Spanish when you use a phone card. ATM machines ask the same question. Commercials by American and international companies are ubiquitous in Spanish language radio and television.And just as American companies make the sensible choice to address potential customers in their languages, educators use Spanish and other languages to reach immigrant children who don't know English. Although California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have virtually eliminated bilingual education, most states retain it because using the students' native language softens the hard landing for immigrant children.The government also makes use of foreign languages to provide services to those who have limited English skills. Some government publications are available in other languages, particularly in Spanish. In most states you can take a driver's license test in a foreign language. Being able to drive legally makes it easier to integrate because it facilitates transportation and school attendance, and provides the means of getting to work as well. Some local governments provide extensive services in key foreign languages. The Oakland City Council last year approved an ordinance to hire bilingual employees in departments that interact with the public to better serve Spanish and Chinese speaking residents of the city. Politicians have discovered that a language other than English may provide an entry to voters' hearts and minds. The most visible example of using Spanish for political gain is George W. Bush, the current U.S. president, who often sprinkles his speeches with Spanish phrases. Recently, a number of GOP members of Congress took a course to familiarize themselves with the Spanish language.Unfortunately, some Americans view the existence of languages other than English as a cancer that needs to be excised. That explains the 26 American states which have passed English-only laws. These attacks on foreign languages produce very little. Rather than pass English-only laws, which make immigrants feel unwelcome, we should look at the linguistic abilities newcomers possess and make use of them. These talents can and should be used to solve problems in the U.S., but are also vital to help solve international conflicts. That's why several American states including New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii have passed English Plus resolutions. The idea is to stress the importance of English but also to recognize that proficiency in a second language is very valuable. That was certainly the case during World War II. Japanese Americans, Italian Americans, and German Americans provided critical linguistic resources to the U.S. in the war effort. American officials also used the Navajo language as a code, which, because of its linguistics complexities, our enemies could not break. Knowledge of other languages has also become indispensable to our security in an ever-shrinking world. Both the FBI and the CIA as well as many government agencies need bilingual employees to do their jobs.The strength of America has always been and will continue to be its people and our ability to integrate the energy brought in by immigrants, regardless of what language people speak. If America ever becomes a perfectly monolingual country, it will only be because it has become an undesirable place to live that no longer attracts people from all over the world. That America draws people speaking nearly every language on the face of the earth is a sign of its strength and greatness, not its weakness.
Other Articles by Domenico Maceri
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Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.
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