I read an interesting column by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. She used the example of a poor woman she met on the street handing out advertisements, who did not speak English, to bring up some very interesting points about the importance of our country having a national language. She wrote, "We must speak the same language so we can hearten each other."
It is an interesting thought - rather than the jingoistic mantra of the neocons, "We should declare the national language to be English because if you come to this country, you darn well better speak our language!" she is looking at it from a humanistic standpoint.
Ms. Noonan asks, "The real question, ultimately, is...should we allow America [to] devolve into a nation of two official languages--in this case, following recent demographic trends and realities, English and Spanish?
We've never done that in more than 200 years. It would be radical, and destructive, to do it now."
She rightly points out that other generations of immigrants before us have always eventually learned English and joined the mainstream culture. My husband's father grew up in Perth Amboy in a Polish immigrant neighborhood where the schools were taught in Polish. Born here, he easily learned English but can still speak Polish to this day.
The advantage English has, and the reason it will always be the single common language in this country, is that it is a language that can absorb and incorporate the best of other languages. As Ms. Noonan noted, "Italian immigrants knew two languages, English and Italian. They enriched the first with the second--this was a great gift to all of us--and wound up with greater opportunities for personal communication to boot. Talk about win-win. And so with every group, from every place."
I have no fear that the current Spanish-speaking immigrants won't follow this same pattern. It's a pattern that has existed since the birth of our nation. Just because today's current immigrants happen to be speaking Spanish and people are seeing signs in Spanish in the immigrant neighborhoods does not mean we are devolving into a nation of two languages.
I am in the market research field and have observed focus groups with Hispanic mothers, conducted in Spanish (with a translator, since, alas, most of us marketing types are not fluent in Spanish). Time and again, these mothers have talked about the fact that although they don't speak English well since they came over to the United States as adults, their kids are already speaking it fluently and are bringing home American customs and idioms and incorporating them into the household.
The mothers complain that oftentimes the children refuse to speak Spanish, so the mother will speak Spanish to the child and the child will answer in English. Their children, like all previous children of immigrants, are going to slide into the mainstream as all have done all along. There is no need to make English the "official" language of the country as some politicians wish to do.
The reason for this is another thing that Ms. Noonan points out in her article. English is the language you need to succeed - not just here in the United States, but throughout the world.
In the original Star Trek series, they all spoke English. In order to explain this phenomenon (given Gene Roddenberry's propensity for encouraging diversity and equality) the writers did not call it English. They called it "Standard." As in, "Do you speak Standard?" And Standard it is. If people from different countries who do not know each other's language meet, what do they speak to communicate? English.
What is the international language of business? English. What is the one foreign language taught in schools all over the world, more than any other? English.
I even know a man who immigrated here from India, who later married a woman who came over from India and did not know his particular Indian dialect. They speak English to communicate.
Part of this is, of course, because America, arguably the most powerful nation in the world - at least for now - does not encourage schools, parents and kids to learn, fluently, other languages. That is partly because it's so hard to decide on one that would be useful, since there are so many languages to learn. But surely, Spanish, at this time in our history, would be the one to teach, so that, as Ms. Noonan says, we can "hearten each other."
Communication is extremely important, and while these latest immigrants to our country are gradually integrating into our culture, it wouldn't hurt us to learn their language too, in order to reach out a helping hand to bring them aboard. This does not mean we're adopting a second language for our nation, just that we're making the effort to communicate so we can all understand each other better.