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English will always be the language of the U.S.

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Our citizens who think English will disappear in our own country are worrying over nothing. People who want to pass laws making it our "official language" are wasting time and effort. I read recently that someone called the United States a "language graveyard". People from all countries with more than 300 languages come here and in a couple generations have lost all languages except English.

English will always be the main language in this country, regardless of how many people complain about having to choose English or Spanish on the telephone or how many signs they see in Spanish or other languages. The most common argument to this statement is that there are so many Latinos here now who don't speak English that they will simply outnumber English speakers and English will be lost. This may make sense to these worriers, but there is no study that backs it up. Latinos are losing their language at exactly the same pace as all immigrants before them lost theirs.

All studies prove that by the second generation, immigrants are fluent in English while using their native language at home. By the third generation, they have almost all lost their native language and only speak English. This means that grandchildren usually are not able to have a conversation with their grandparents.

This is what has always happened in this country. Germans, Polish, Italians, Asians - all did the same thing. The first generation struggled and learned a little bit of English, their children spoke both languages and their grandchildren spoke only English.

Of the more than 300 languages spoken in this country, English is the language that unites us. It is the language needed to get ahead. It is the language needed to get a good education, to get a good job, to live up to our full potential. Many of these 300 languages will be extinct in 100 years, English won't be.

About 15 years ago, I was sitting in a hotel restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan, eating breakfast. There were three businessmen sitting at the next table going over a contract to purchase and ship greenhouse cactus plants. One man was German, one was Taiwanese and the other was Italian. They were using English as their common language.

None of them spoke English very well and all had heavy accents. They were having a very hard time understanding each other through these individual accents. I could understand all of them quite well. I offered to help them, but they politely refused my help.

English is used all over the world, often, as with these men, as the only common language. School children everywhere learn English. They may not be fluent in it, but they are familiar with it and can function in it if necessary.

The reason there are language choices on telephone messages and signs in Spanish at banks and offices is because businesses have decided to serve these immigrants in their own language. It helps their business serve a group of people with enormous purchasing power. It is simply a business decision.

In some ways it is doing Latino immigrants a disservice, because it makes it almost unnecessary for them to learn English. They can get by in most situations in Spanish. But they will not be able to help their children get a good education, they won't be able to get better jobs, they will have great difficulty if they ever have an emergency and need medical or police assistance. They will always be held back by the language barrier.

Instead of complaining about people not learning English fast enough, I think my fellow citizens should try to help immigrants learn English. Instead of being upset that they are taking longer in line at the store, we can offer to help them understand the question or make change. In the lunch room at work, we can trade words and phrases in our language with coworkers in their language and we will all learn. Some people seem to think that in order to teach, we have to be trained teachers, but we can teach and learn every day.

Most ESL classes in the country have long waiting lists of people wanting to learn English. Many times the classes are at inconvenient times or places for the students. Many immigrants work two jobs and long hours and are unable to attend classes. They will appreciate and benefit from any help we can give them individually.

It is incredibly hard to learn a new language as an adult. Adult brains are not as pliable and willing to think in another language as the brains of children are. It takes slow, patient repeating of words and constant practice. It requires a lot of nerve to take a chance, speak up and possibly be wrong, misunderstood or ridiculed. It requires a partner to practice with who doesn't laugh at mistakes.

English has never been seriously threatened as the dominant language of the United States, the languages that immigrants bring with them to the U.S. are endangered. It is not necessary to try to make English the official language. It won't make any difference.
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Donna Poisl is the author of "How to Live & Thrive in the U.S. / Como Vivir y Prosperar en Estados Unidos" and president of Live & Thrive Press. She wrote this reference guide to help immigrants learn our system and succeed in this (more...)
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