Food For Thought

Make English Our Official Language 

by Dr. John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John Bonfadini

A recent meeting with Cooperative Living’s editors focused on possible topics for future Food for Thought columns. I suggested a need to revisit the topic of a previous article, which centered on establishing English as the official language of the U.S.

This earlier article was entitled “Speak English, Please.” A recent version of the Washington , D.C. , evening television news included a story about an area county designating English as its official language. I think it’s time for Congress to reaffirm that English is our national and official language, even though it is not officially designated as such in the Constitution.

We seem to have little difficulty officially recognizing many other things — and we use the word “National” as part of the following:

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National Flag: Stars and Stripes;

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National Anthem: Star-Spangled Banner;

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National Bird: The bald eagle;

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National Parks: Yellowstone and 390 others;

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National Currency: The dollar;

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National Capital: Washington , D.C. ;

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National Cemetery : Arlington ;

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National Museum : Smithsonian, History and Art, Space and others;

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National Highway System: Includes interstates and numerous other roads;

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National Motto: The original, “E Pluribus Unum,” is Latin for “One from many” or “One from many parts.” Later changed to “In God We Trust”;

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National Flower: The rose. President Ronald Reagan signed the resolution into law on October 7, 1986, in a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden (author’s note: a resolution does not have the status of law so you dandelion lovers can still enjoy your flowers).

Wikipedia offers the following definitions and overview:

A national language is a language (or language variant, i.e. dialect) which represents the national identity of a nation or country. A national language is used for political and legal discourse. Some countries have more than one national language, such as Canada , which uses both French and English. A national language declared as such by legislation is the same as an official language. It is different for that reason from the national predominant language, which is a national language only through de facto use or by historical association with a particular nation. An official language is a language that is given a unique legal status in the countries, states, and other territories. It is typically the language used in a nation’s legislative bodies, though the law in many nations requires that government documents be produced in other languages as well.

In the USA , English is the national language only in an informal sense, by numbers and by historical and contemporary association. The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly declare any official language, although the Constitution is written in English, as is all federal legislation.

Recently several attempts have been initiated to establish English as the official language. On May 8, 2007, Senator James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced Senate Bill S.1335, which would declare English as the official language of the government of the United States . Others have followed but failed to pass because they are usually included as part of other laws addressing immigration issues. This year should be a banner year for OFFICAL language legislative issues.

This topic has strong historical significance. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt stated, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” English-only proponents often refer to Roosevelt ’s comment. My dad immigrated to this country during the early 1900s and quickly learned the need to speak English. He maintained and spoke his native tongue in many informal places, but English was the language of the house.

As an educator, I realize the cultural value of languages, but I believe that all society would be better served if it could communicate through a single tongue.  As noted above, two languages are used in Canada , and it’s easy to see the problems created by the division. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs places safety at the pinncale. Being able to communicate with other humans is a basic safety concern. While visiting a local building supply store, I noticed a sign signifying the customer-service area. It was written in four languages. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if local police or fire departments had to communicate in all those languages. How do you spell “disaster?”

Technology has been used to circumvent the need to speak English. Signs and phone messages can be easily printed in different languages. But perhaps technology should be used to help individuals learn English, not circumvent the need. Some individuals point to other countries where residents learn both the native language and English, stating that the U.S. should also promote learning other languages. English has now become the international language, a fortunate turn of events for those whose native language is English. But what language should students learn as a second tongue? At one time it was French or German. Today it could be Spanish or Arabic; or maybe Korean, Japa­nese, Chinese, or Italian. During the Cold War days it was Russian. Current educational evaluations stress most kids have difficulty learning English. Educators pollute an already over-crowded elementary curriculum by wasting time teaching kids to say hello in many languages. Leave the second language to high school curricula and stick to the basics at the elementary level.

In the United States we have the right to protect our culture. Speaking English is high on the list of our cultural values and should be a goal of our educational system for all students. When people freely decide to accept a country as home, they also accept the responsibility to learn and respect the cultural values of their new home.

Over time, our society will continue to evolve and accept many of the cultural values of our new citizens. I think, however, the onus of having to provide human services in many languages would be a cultural and economic burden we can’t afford. Further­more, our teachers are already overburdened trying to accommodate the general needs of our diverse society. It would be unreasonable to ask them to provide these services in a multitude of languages.

Now that I’ve made the point that I believe all citizens need to speak English as early as possible, let me make one final point. Our society has always been compassionate to the needs of the disadvantaged, especially when children are involved. Increased use of technology centered on learning English is the most effective way of adapting to the Ameri­can culture. Technology should provide only temporary support — not replacement — while each person meets their responsibility of mastering an acceptable level of English.

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to: bsherrod@odec.com, or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded to the author.

 

 

 

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