Sunday, June 03, 2007

Official English

From tonight's Democratic debate in New Hampshire, candidates were asked about their position on English as America's official language:

To a question on whether English should be the official language in the United States, only former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel raised his hand in the affirmative.

But Obama protested the question itself, calling it “the kind of question that was designed precisely to divide us.” He said such questions “do a disservice to the American people.”

Actually it's the other way around. One of the fundamentals of a united society is a common language, and we don't have that everywhere in the country. Yes, this has been true with immigrant communities in the past, but those were times when America assimilated its population. We don't nearly so much anymore, having at times taken the admirable goal of diversity too far.

I've been surprised at how impressed I've been with Obama in this race. He's more than charismatic, intelligent, articulate and optimistic. He's also measured, nuanced and more centrist than advertised. But on this, I think he's missing the point.

Senator Dodd in the same debate said that we should be encouraging our children to learn other languages, not talking about English as being official. How are those two things mutually exclusive? Should we not be doing both?


MonkeyJunkie said...

I agree with your comment that a common language facilitates cohesion both on a personal and societal level. However, to say America must have only one primary language is somewhat limiting in my view. For instance, the average European speaks three languages. I see no reason why we couldn’t or shouldn’t have a multilingual educational system to help facilitate the cohesion created from effective communication. Taking a more macro view of the issue, globalization is creating ever more opportunities for those who can help facilitate the collaboration across linguistic boundaries. In Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat” he makes a case that the next great commodity will be the effective collaborator. I just feel that to limit America to one language seems much too isolationist. Your thoughts?

~The Monkey

Polaris said...

Thanks for your comment, and the excellent logo to go with it!

I'm a big fan of globalization and Mr. Friedman's view of the world. But every ideology or concept runs into its practical limits taken too far.

A few differences in the examples you site. First, in most European countries, they do speak several languages, and I wish we did too. But in almost all it's quite clear which is the primary language, and to not speak it is quite damaging to one's prospects.

What about the countries where there isn't a primary? How is national unity in them? Belgium is split between Dutch and French for the most part, something that has caused quite a bit of friction over the years, and resulted in a country with very little sense of national identity.

Switzerland has four (some would say three) main languages, largely because of the difficult terrain.
It's a great country, but with a weak central government. Most power is devolved to the cantons.

Canada may be the best example. The situation with Quebec is what I want to avoid. Having both English and French as official languages does the opposite of facilitating good communication within Canada, and makes it many ways two separate countries. What's the upside?

Also, one of the extra languages most countries speak is English, obviously to facilitate worldwide communication. These days, English actually fosters worldwide unity, which I think reinforces what I'm saying.

I think Americans should learn a whole bunch of languages. I'm trying to learn two more now myself. As the most powerful country in the world for so many years, we are sometimes dangerously lacking in understanding of the world around us, and learning more about other countries would be a big help. But that sort of diversity is not an absolute good. Assuring that everyone can communicate in one language doesn't take away from anyone's culture, but means much for fostering a shared sense of purpose and solidarity.

MonkeyJunkie said...

I completely agree that unity is based on effective communication. America hasn’t had an official language since its inception yet a lack of unity caused by language barrier has never been a major issue. Lack of unity in America seems to be related more to economics and race then ineffective communication based on language.

I also totally agree that we Americans have very little understanding of the “outside” world which feeds into my main argument against an official national language. My fear is that setting an official language will empower the isolationists among us (growing minority) to dissuade many from learning to effectively communicate on the world stage.

We, America, cannot afford to influence a generation of our citizenry to stand on our past successes and shout, “SPEAK ENGLISH OR GO HOME”. The world is changing, our population density is evolving. We must not limit ourselves. We must be progressive.

-The Monkey

Polaris said...

Lack of unity may be more based on income and race, but I'm for addressing those things too. They are not mutually exclusive, and in fact not learning English only deepens the divides to which you refer.

I tend to think isolationists will be somewhat placated by such an action, but regardless I think most Americans are smart enough not to listen to them. Retreat behind walls has almost never been a wise foreign policy choice.

Finally, I think the word progressive tends to be thrown around without much definition behind it. Though the word is typically associated with the philosophy of a publication like The Nation, to me that represents a false path.

Progressivism should take a balance of liberty, equality, and national unity, none of which can be achieved perfectly, and continually update its policies to reflect changes to technology, views and the like. It should be idealistic in its aims, but pragmatic in its means. I still fail to see the downside here, and think the existing problems I've mentioned are more than sufficient.

That some people who advocate English as official are xenophobic doesn't mean the idea is bad for other reasons. It's only one action of many we should take to solve this extremely complex issue.