By Domenico Maceri
More than 47 million American residents age five and older use a language other than English at home, according to the latest figures of the U.S. Census. That translates into nearly one in five Americans, while 10 years ago one in seven Americans spoke a foreign language at home.This information has been widely publicized in the media recently. For some Americans, the "large" number of non-English speakers causes problems since the fear is that these new immigrants will not integrate and dilute the fabric of our country.However, another way to look at it is that these "non-English speakers" make not only valuable economic contributions but linguistic ones as well.Looking beyond the headlines, you discover first of all that about half of the 47 million who speak a language other than English at home also speak English "very well," according to information provided to the Census.That means we have a lot of bilingual people in the U.S. That is a great asset, which unfortunately is used very little at a time when our need to communicate with the rest of the world keeps increasing.As the U.S. continues its presence in many other countries militarily, economically, and politically, the need for linguistically competent people rises. We know very well that we lack qualified bilingual personnel both domestically and abroad. That shortage became very clear a few years ago when the FBI announced soon after 9-11 that it needed Arabic speakers to translate large amounts of data that had been collected through various means. To remedy the situation, the FBI eventually held a job fair in a New Jersey mosque to hire bilingual agents.Shortages of bilingual personnel exist also in other areas of our government. In China, 62 percent of the U.S. Foreign Service officers did not meet the language requirement for their jobs, according to a General Accounting Office report. In Russia, 41 percent did not speak Russian. In Saudi Arabia the head of public outreach for an American consulate did not speak Arabic.Although there is no easy solution to finding linguistically qualified personnel, the millions of people in the U.S. who speak English and another language can be tapped to fill positions in government.What foreign languages are spoken in U.S. homes? Spanish, of course, is the most widely used with about 28 million potentially bilingual people. Other languages with more than a million speakers include Chinese, French, German, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Italian, Korean, Russian, and Polish.These linguistically capable individuals need to be encouraged to apply for positions requiring language skills. Even if immigrants don't know a particular language, they can use their bilingual skills to learn it a lot faster than monolingual Americans. For example, it's easy for a Spanish speaker to learn Portuguese because the two languages are closely related. Similar cases apply for eastern European and Asian languages.In the long run, however, the U.S. needs to develop a climate of multilingualism within our borders by encouraging language study in schools beginning in the early grades. This needs to occur for the kids of immigrant children who should be encouraged to maintain their parents'languages as they also learn English.In the case of monolingual American kids, the same opportunity to learn two languages should be made available. Dual language schools, which teach subjects in two languages, are increasing although their numbers are still very small. There are more than 300 such schools in the U.S., up by more than two-thirds since 1992. Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley wisely called on the nation to nearly quadruple the number of dual-language schools to 1,000 within five years.In spite of the obvious need for bilingual individuals, a wind of monolingualism has been blowing in the U.S. in the last few decades. Several states have virtually eliminated bilingual education programs. Twenty-seven states have declared English their official language.Several English-only organizations have been formed in the last 15 years. Their goals are to protect the English language but at the same time to lobby against bilingual education and bilingualism in general. That is not simply a misguided course of action but a potentially dangerous one as well.English monolingualism will not make anyone feel safe. Linguistic resources translate into knowledge which can provide the security and prosperity we deserve.
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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