June 2004

Enshrining English

June 2004 Cover

So, Virginia Representative Virgil Goode and the ten co-sponsors of his proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution (see News, p.10) think that linguistic diversity is such a threat to this country that we need to take extreme measures to protect ourselves from it.

Of course, this is not the first attempt to make English the nation’s official language and many States have declared it their official language. In fact, Goode’s proposed amendment is not the only official-English legislation in Congress at the moment. There are two other bills with the same aim, but at least they do not require changing the very Constitution of the United States.

Americans have traditionally resisted legislative impositions on their language since 1780, when John Adams proposed the establishment of an official Language Academy to set standards for English. This idea was rejected by the Continental Congress as an improper role for government and a threat to individual liberties. A century later, President Roosevelt’s attempt to “reform” English spelling also failed. There was no English proficiency requirement to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen until 1906 – the first major language restriction to be enacted at the federal level.

The Continental Congress printed its official documents in German and French without any objections and States often catered to minority-language requirements. Before World War I, bilingual education was common in areas where minority-language groups had political influence. During the 19th century, state laws, constitutions, and legislative proceedings appeared in a host of languages like Norwegian, Czech, Welsh, Spanish, French, and German.

People the world over recognize that English is our global language. China, which is regarded by many Americans as our major competitor, recognizes the importance of English. Instead of being afraid of its dominance, more than 250 million Chinese people are learning English so that they can operate on the global stage.

Amending the Constitution is a momentous undertaking that should only be reserved for truly fundamental matters of state, like the abolition of slavery and the introduction of universal suffrage, not something as inconsequential as the adoption of English as an official language. So, we must look deeper into the motives behind this proposal. Fortunately, Rep. Goode reveals his motives on his website, where he quotes the example of bilingual Canada being threatened by efforts to “split French speaking Quebec off from the rest of the English speaking Canada” which seems to contradict our report in this issue (p. 28) on the diverse locations for French immersion in Canada. Goode is even more revealing as he continues by suggesting that “there are some from Mexico who are already saying that the Mexican War was wrong and that the United States should be split in the Southwest.”

Despite having lived in the Southwest for several years, working and socializing with Mexican-Americans and other immigrant communities, this is the first that I have heard of a movement to devolve. According to the 2000 Census, 92 percent of America’s population age five and older speaks English “very well.” Among Spanish-speakers, the largest group of immigrants who speak another language, 70 percent know English either “well” or “very well.” The figure is almost exactly the same for speakers of Asian languages, the second-largest group.
It is the age-old fear of strangers upsetting the status quo that is the real inspiration behind this proposal, which does not warrant the time and consideration of our elected

The U.S. is strengthened by its diversity of ethnicity, culture and language, not weakened.


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