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Prof. Maceri's special column
Only One Language for America?
Special Contribution
By Domenico Maceri
Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) inside the Royal Castle

"We're not of the same race, but we can always speak the same language" stated Robin Toonkel, who represents U.S. English, a group that wants English declared the official language of the country.

Ms. Toonkel believes that making English official will recognize it as the language that has unified America throughout its history.

A quick look at the past reveals that many languages have been present in the US before and after 1776 and the country continues to thrive.

The obvious languages before the arrival of whites are the Indian languages which had been in America for many centuries. Those languages are still alive but many are in danger of disappearing.

A number of other languages have also been part of America's linguistic landscape. German was widely used in the 18th century. On Jan. 13, 1795, Congress considered a proposal to print federal laws in German as well as English. It did not pass.

Indeed, German was so extensively used in the 18th century that Benjamin Franklin complained about German-English bilingual street signs in Philadelphia. Franklin was also concerned that the prevalence of the German language might end up requiring interpreters in the Pennsylvania's Parliament.

Many other languages have been part of America, including Spanish in the southwest and Florida, French in Louisiana, and many others brought in by immigrants. These languages reflected and continue to reflect a multilingual country.

Even today more than 300 foreign languages are spoken in the US. Some like Spanish have millions of speakers, but there are others which may have only a few hundred speakers. Americans have probably never heard of Zuni, Cushite, Amharic, or Hidatsa.

Yet, America holds among its inhabitants speakers of these languages. Arizona is home to a number of Native American languages including Apache, Cocopa, Havasapai, Hopi, Maricopa, Mohave, and Papago-Pima.

The presence of these languages has not presented a challenge to the dominance of English.

Everyone accepts English as the de facto language of the country in spite of the tradition to also use other languages in various aspects of American life.

The presence of these languages has not caused the country to fall apart. Instead, immigrants adopted and continue to adopt English as the language of integration into American life.

Lack of English means few opportunities and immigrant parents often insist that their kids be taught in English.

Even in areas of the country with large Spanish-speaking population such as Miami and Dade County, Florida you need to know English to be elected to public office.

Los Angeles recently elected Antonio Villaraigosa as its mayor. Villaraigosa campaigned in English and although he used some Spanish it was the English language that got him elected.

Other politicians have used and continue to use Spanish in political campaigns. John Kerry and George W. Bush used their limited Spanish. Recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg kicked off his re-election campaign with advertising in Spanish.

Bloomberg has been studying Spanish and although he is not fluent he uses it occasionally.

Since there are many languages spoken in the US some people view politicians' use of Spanish as pandering because other groups do not get courted in their languages.

That may be, but certainly Spanish is a much more vibrant language and politicians, like corporations, understand it.

Twenty-seven American states have declared English their official language. Three have even virtually banned bilingual education.

Yet, these actions have changed little. They have not speeded up the process of immigrants learning English nor have they reduced immigration.

Declaring English the official language of the country will similarly have little effect.

When politicians spend valuable time declaring English the official language one has to wonder what other important issues they are refusing to address.

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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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