By Michelle Hardy
(Note: This article appeared in the print version of LF but was unfortunately cut off at the end. It appears in its entirety here. Enjoy.)
It was a rare moment in history when a Barack Obama’s speech caused worrisome ‘uh-oh’s’ instead of the usual ecstatic joy and optimism. “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English… you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish!” declared the Illinois junior senator in Powder Springs, Georgia. Thankfully, the finely tuned public ear caught the resonant undertone in Obama’s statement that assimilation ought to be conciliatory, on the part of the native citizens of this country.
After substantial criticism, Obama assured the public his comments merely intended that it is time for Americans to branch out and become bilingual, trilingual, etc. And that’s a great idea. Yet the glaring flaw in this speech was not that Obama wants Santa to leave some Rosetta Stone software under the holiday tree this year. His comments implied that, although he acknowledges the need for immigrants to learn English, it is not a top priority issue for him.
According to polls, Americans recognize the threat of losing their bond formed by having one language, while letting an assortment of languages fight for attention, creating cultural barriers between natives and newcomers. This is not an unlikely scenario, considering that the Hispanic population will have nearly tripled between the years 2000 and 2050 according to the US Census Bureau, reaching 102.6 million and radically shifting America’s cultural climate.
That’s why the 2007 Zogby poll reported that 83 percent of US citizens would like to officially name English the country’s national language. Three-quarters of Hispanic Americans within the survey, an unexpected and astounding number, favored a national language as well. While the decision would help maintain unity as the nation’s Spanish-speaking population skyrockets, Obama voted against such a move in 2006 and again in 2007.
America is actually the most multilingual country in the world, considering almost every world language is spoken on its soil. We learned in kindergarten that the reason our wide array of ethnicities can co-exist peacefully is the unifying American melting pot: living under one common language and one common culture while every ethnic group or nationality adds a unique flavor to the recipe. School House Rock metaphors aside, when immigrants arriving in large droves are not adequately encouraged to, or are implicitly encouraged not to, assimilate into mainstream culture, primarily through language, a destructive disunity arises.
This is already happening in cities like Miami, where the Hispanic and Latino population composes 80.3 percent of the city’s people, and English speakers are a minority. It’s now extremely difficult for those who don’t speak Spanish to find jobs in the city - even simple minimum wage jobs. As a result, many English speakers are moving out.
Canada decided to embrace two national languages - English and French - but the results have been a bit less than impressive. Residents of Quebec, a French-speaking province, continually argue they should secede from the nation because their culture is so distinct from the rest of Canada.
And that’s in a country much less linguistically diverse than the US. What’s protecting us from similar cultural incompatibility in our future? Will we make Hispanic immigrants more comfortable at the expense of other immigrants? Will Indian or Arab immigrants seeking jobs have to learn English and Spanish on top of their native languages? Will distinct areas of the US become virtually inaccessible to English speakers?
It is undoubtedly important that US children do learn a second or third language in an age of globalization, and in all fairness, Spanish is extremely beneficial, considering it is the second most spoken language in the world. But a language should be acquired as a personal goal for professional or travel purposes - not to make living without English easier on any one immigrant group.
“While bilingualism is something to which more Americans should aspire in today's global economy, the skill is certainly not a civic duty, rather, something extra to be lauded upon its achievement,” said Fordham sophomore Ryan Vale.
The US has had non-English-speaking immigrants for as long as it has existed. Not until the current porous border crisis have we ever found logic in adopting immigrants’ languages so that English isn’t a necessity. New Yorkers in the early 1900’s did not campaign for Italian to be a vital part of their children’s curriculum. Italians fully integrated, linguistically and otherwise, and we can now go to Little Italy right outside Fordham and communicate with every waiter in every restaurant on Arthur Avenue (save for a bit of embarrassment at how we pronounce, or more likely mispronounce, the menu).
“I believe that to promote unity we need not only a national language but also a law that requires immigrants in the naturalization process to learn that language after being in the country for a certain amount of time,” says Fordham senior James Scalera. “In order to interact with other individuals in society and in order for the economy to function properly, each of us must be able to speak one common language. If we make exceptions for one ethnicity we must make an exception for all ethnicities, something which is obviously not feasible or at all realistic.”
So why should an official language be the first step in encouraging the United States to unite? With this move, all government business – including public documents, meetings, legislation, hearings, and government ceremonies – would be conducted solely in English. This would encourage fluency in English so that immigrants could participate in the democratic process and fully assimilate.
Opponents ironically argue this shows racism and intolerance, yet without English, immigrants are isolated linguistically and culturally from other citizens. Rumors that English would be forced upon immigrants in healthcare and judicial matters are blatantly incorrect. The official move to a national language would be the first step in closing the cultural gap between new and old Americans, connecting them by means of a universally spoken language.
If learning English takes the back seat in national politics, there is a great chance it will take the back seat for immigrants as well. Declaring a national language is not a priority for Obama, and showing leniency on this vital need, “instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English,” cannot be afforded in coming years. More than ever before, it’s an issue we most definitely need to be “worrying” about.
America’s diversity is admirable because a variety of ethnicities can stand together under one common language and culture, not because its diverse cultural groups exist interdependently, factionalized in their varying comfort zones. Voting against a unifying national language as ethnic demographics in America rapidly transform is just not logical. ¡Es ilógico, Obama!