23 March 2007

US Language Policy, Or Why I Don't Care If You Don't Learn English

A few people on a rather conservative homeschool message board I read sometimes were up in arms about the US national anthem being sung in Spanish. I don't have a problem with this. I hope that more people are singing the national anthem now because of it. In fact, I get rather annoyed at people who think English should be the One Official Language of the United States. (I find it particularly ironic when they insist on this for Native Americans, but that's not the point here.)

Most adults who move to a country where their native language widely spoken never learn the new language really well. Of course some do, but as a rule, adults rarely learn a new language to a decent level of fluency. This is not their fault; it's simply the way the human brain works. The older you get, the harder it is to learn a new language. This means that a significant number of immigrants will really struggle with learning English (and please don't bring up Israel here; many immigrants do learn Hebrew there, but a significant number do not, especially those who are from Asian and African countries).

This does not mean it's impossible, nor does it mean that it's not worth trying to learn a new language. But what it does mean is that it is unreasonable to expect all immigrants to learn English no matter what. It is really, really hard to learn a foreign language, and few Americans have experienced anything like what an immigrant experiences when they move to America.

I do not support efforts to make English the only official language of the US. We have a multicultural country and a country with many languages. It is not unreasonable to accommodate people who do not speak English fluently. Despite the tired cliche, we really are a nation of immigrants. English will be learned, probably not by the first generation of immigrants, but subsequent generations will.

And can we lay the tired argument to rest that I hear all the time that says "If I moved to another country, I wouldn't expect them to speak English to me"? If you haven't done that, you don't know what you're talking about. I hope you wouldn't expect that, but you also wouldn't magically learn the new language, nor are you likely ever to become fluent in that new language. You will probably always need help, and it really wouldn't be totally unreasonable if it was so overwhelming that you just quit. Really, it wouldn't. And I've met plenty of Americans living overseas who do expect the world to continue on in English.

So cut people a little slack. So what if you go to a store where many employees don't speak English? Either deal with it or shop somewhere else. It's not the end of the world. And being a little supportive will probably go a lot farther than requiring all immigrants to learn English. It is too easy to exclude people in so many ways just because they don't know the right language.

(This assumes that learning English is the goal of all immigrants, and of course it isn't, nor should it be. Language diversity is a good thing in my mind.)

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