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on the creation of a national language

I can trace my roots back to immigrants if I go back five generations. Despite that, only my mother and grandmother can speak French (their ancestral tongue), and it was a second language for both of them. Every one of us speaks English as our first and primary language.

My great-grandfather on my mother’s mother’s side was the only member of that generation of my family to live long enough for me to meet. He was born over a hundred years ago, and helped shape the landscape of modern New Hampshire–sometimes quite literally: my hometown, his town, has six exits on the interstate highway, while a few miles down the road a city twice the size has three. My point here is that my heritage is unambiguously American; though my ancestors immigrated from England and France, nobody in my family has actually lived there for over a century.

I’d consider myself pro-immigration: the only reason to limit immigration is to limit access to social services which an immigrant has not spent their life paying for, and I’m anti-social-services (in general–talk to me for details). If we do away with most governmental services, we can open immigration policies without taking a financial hit.

However, I see no reason why a court should be required to hire interpreters for people, or why official documents must be translated into “major” languages. Equality under the law doesn’t mean providing assistance until every citizen is functionally equal; it means treating them the same no matter their background. I don’t expect copies of the law of Japan to be translated into English for me; I don’t see why a Mexican (or any other non-English-speaking) immigrant to the US would expect a similar service. Those are convenient services which are beneficial to immigrants, but they are expenses the government has to pay, and they still don’t ensure equality: even if we provide translations into dozens of languages, there are still hundreds more languages spoken within the US.

I’d say that it is advantageous for a nation to promote the use of a single language within its borders, because it eliminates barriers which would otherwise fragment its citizens. Eliminating those internal linguistic barriers helps promote a sense of being one nation, and one people; it builds a sense of nationalism. One of the best ways to institutionally promote unity is to make other options inconvenient; even without making anything illegal or impossible, people will gravitate towards the easy option. Less than one percent of the population of the US speaks no English; choosing and enforcing that language as an official standard will reduce that fraction further, not by driving people out of the country, but by encouraging them to learn.

One of the favorite metaphors of America’s immigrant heritage is the melting pot. As I understand it, this was supposed to evoke the image of a steel forge, radiant with heat as the alloys formed. The original materials–the iron, the coke, the other ingredients–never survive unscathed with their culture and heritage intact. However, when they emerge, they have combined into something altogether better than what was put in: steel.

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Comment by silversliver
2006-05-21 15:05:56

I think it’s easy to talk in terms of percentages, but we also have a population of 250 million. The “less than one percent” that speaks no English is actually less than 2.5 million individuals, which doesn’t sound so small to me. There are enclaves in cities where the de facto language of the quarter is not English but Spanish or a Chinese dialect. Many people here know enough English to conduct business like shopping or banking outside the quarter, but it may not be good enough for understanding a law enforcement officer or questioning in court. Should 2.5 million people be forced to fill out forms, make depositions, or testify in court (on their own behalf or that of others) in a language they don’t understand? They can’t pay taxes if they can’t use the form to figure out how much to write the check for. ;)

Comment by coriolinus
2006-05-21 23:21:51

I have never been to a court here in Japan, but I’ve filled out forms, reported for the national census, and paid taxes in Japanese. I’ve rented a car for the weekend! I’ve done all this living as the only foreigner in the whole town where I live.

I can only imagine, then, how much easier it would be for a person who lives in an enclave in which dozens or hundreds of other people speak their language, and have also faced the same problems.

If during the course of an investigation, law enforcement officers require a translator, it seems foolish to deny them one. Within a court, the expense of the translator could be born by whoever called the witness to the stand. In the best case, the police patrolling each lingual enclave would be recruited from within its population.

One way of gaining citizenship in the US is simply to be born there. An immigrant family may arrive as Chinese in America, or Mexican in America, or whatever, but their children will be Americans and grow up that way. English is just a part of that transformation.

Comment by lizzabette
2006-05-22 10:15:34

Simply put, I think your opinion is small-minded.

The United States is an immigrant country. We are built on many different cultures, and language is a part of culture. Forcing the use of a language in any country will, inevitably, force the extinction of another language. Look at what happened to Gaelic in Ireland! The language was outlawed, and so it died. I think, if anything, citizens of the United States should make more of an effort to learn another language. If the native language of a person is Spanish, then perhaps that person should learn to speak English. The same goes for those who speak English at home. I do not see such a thing as linguistic barriers. I work with students from around the world, and even when students barely speak three words of English, I can successfully make myself understood as well as understand them.

In terms of the court of law, the interpreters are there to insure that the person understands the proceedings. Would you be advocating the same thing if it were, for example, a tourist who didn’t speak English?

Not to mention that the federal government of the United States does not have the authority to declare an official language. Individual states do, however. But, with the number of Spanish speaking people growing exponentially, Spanish very well may be the new language of the majority of US citizens in several generations…….

Comment by coriolinus
2006-05-23 07:53:39

I haven’t spoken anywhere of outlawing any language, or forcing the use of English–if someone wants to speak through an interpreter, let them do it! I just don’t think the government should shoulder the bill for interpreting for people. I am encouraging people who don’t speak English natively to learn it to ease intranational communication, but I in no way think that native English speakers should refrain from learning additional languages.

Also, the statement that “forcing the use of a language in any country will, inevitably, force the extinction of another language” is nonsensical. Even if, for some unfathomable reason, laws were enacted and enforced that non-English languages were not permitted within the borders of the US, people would not stop speaking Spanish in Spain, or Chinese in China.

The strength of linguistic barriers depends strongly on the message you’re trying to convey. Things like “Where’s the bathroom?” or “I want to buy this” are pretty easy to get across no matter how little of the language you speak, but things like “My goal in life is to live as interestingly as possible” are a lot harder. As for “The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself,” you shouldn’t even bother trying to get that through with hand gestures and pidgin. I’ve been teaching English for most of a year now, and it seems nonsensical to say that there’s no such thing as a linguistic barrier.

Are you saying that tourists should be treated somehow differently than immigrants, who should in turn be treated differently than native-born citizens? The law should apply equally to everyone. In civil suits, a person could probably hire an interpreter on a contingent fee basis. In criminal cases, I’ve already expressed my support for investigators to have access to interpreters if necessary during the course of an investigation. On the defendant’s side, a reasonable approach would be to let the defendant choose to hire a translator if they so desire, and then have the losing party pay the translator’s costs. There is law which seems to let people try for just that, but I am not a lawyer; I don’t know how relevant that law is in the general case within the US. If such provisions aren’t already in place, it seems reasonable to implement them.

I’m not sure the federal government doesn’t have the authority to declare an official language. Its authority is delimited by the Constitution and its amendments, and they don’t mention the matter of a language. The current tactic seems to be authorizing it under clause 4 of section 8: “[The Congress shall have the power...] To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” However, I personally think it’s cleaner to authorize it under clause 1: “[The Congress shall have the power to...] provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” For reasons already given, I believe that promoting a single language which everyone speaks–not necessarily to the detriment of other languages–increases the general welfare of the United States.

Is there a reference for the number of Spanish speaking people growing exponentially?

Comment by silversliver
2006-05-23 08:40:50

Our disagreement about providing translators probably stems from our differences about the role of government in society at large. I am not disagreeing with the fact that English is the de facto language, or that it is mightily convenient to have one language spoken by all. I still have a conceptual problem with making it the official language, partially because of the circumstances of the introduction. It’s a closing off of at least symbolic openness to immigrants who are working and making a good-faith effort to assimilate.


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