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English doesn't have to be our "official" language

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In many parts of this country it’s very common to see foreign language newspapers and magazines in the stores next to English language publications. I used to live in an apartment in Chicago and we could hear four or five different languages in the elevator every day.

But in most of the United States, this is new and many of our residents are not dealing with it very well. They think immigrants should learn English before they get here or at least as soon as they arrive. They don't understand how hard it is to learn a new language. They don't realize how many hours it takes to sit in class, especially how hard it is after working a 10 hour day or a second job with a family waiting at home. They don’t realize that it takes years to become fluent in another language.

It seems that most of this interest in making English our official language is rooted in the issue of illegal immigration. Many people assume that anyone who does not speak English fluently is here illegally but very few legal immigrans are fluent in English when they come here.  All have to learn our language and customs.

Several cities and states are trying to make English their official language and some are passing laws. Others have decided it is unnecessary.

I agree with the ones who find it unnecessary. English is our national language, everyone in the world knows that. The importance of speaking English as the best way to succeed and achieve a better life here is already something that is understood by nearly every immigrant in the country. Learning English and American customs are needed for so many things, including employment, opening bank accounts, explaining problems to a doctor or the police and being able to buy things.

Some proposed laws state simply that "all communications shall be in English". If these laws pass and it is declared as the official language, that might make it illegal to use any other language. Period.

Would this mean that immigrants who want to take ESL classes couldn't speak their language in that class to translate and learn English? Would it mean that people who have to report an emergency couldn't do it unless they spoke English? Would foreign business people here looking to invest or build a factory have to speak English? Would all foreign tourists have to speak English while visiting here?

These examples might be extreme, but most of the proposed laws are so broad and so vague that they could be open to almost any interpretation. They might not do much more than cause hundreds of lawsuits that test the limits of the laws and cause more backlogs in the courts.

Our language has evolved from the King’s English of the pilgrims into what we speak today. Some British people resent that we even call our language English. There are so many words that different groups of our immigrants have added that our American English is not much like the original and is very different than British English now. Add to that the different regional accents and words and you can see how our language is changing all the time.

If foreign words were not allowed here years ago, we wouldn’t have a large portion of our language. Just imagine our language without boulevards, bouquets, quays, queues and especially foods like spaghetti, tamales, burritos, quiche, feta, curry, rissoto or chow mein.

This country is an immigrant nation and the progression of English has stayed the same since it’s beginning. First generation immigrants are only about 4% English dominant, the second generation is almost 100% fluent in English while speaking their parents’ language at home. By the third generation, all are fluent in English and only about 22% are bilingual anymore. Many of this generation wish their parents had taught them their language, since, as we all know, knowledge of another language helps in many parts of our lives.

If these cities want to encourage people to learn English, there are better methods than declaring it the official language. If we make it easier for people to learn English, it would help tremendously.

There was a bill proposed last year for the government to provide $500 vouchers for legal immigrants to pay for English classes. This would certainly be a step in the right direction.

More classes have to be set up to teach them too, though. Vouchers won’t help much if there aren’t classes. Some immigrants are waiting months to get into public classes to learn English, some states have a waiting list as long as two years.

English has never been threatened as the dominant language of the United States. The languages that immigrants bring with them to the U.S. are the ones that are threatened. After a few generations, all those languages are gone. It is not necessary to legislate English as our official language.  

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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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