English plus' better survival strategy than 'English only'
May. 23, 2006
The man on the telephone hadn't heard that the U.S. Senate last week voted to
make English the "national" language, but he believed it to be good news.
He had called to complain about billboards around Phoenix in which the printed
material was in Spanish.
"I'm an American," he said. "There shouldn't be advertising signs in anything
but English. I don't care if you speak some other language, but everything
should be written in English." He wanted to know if I agreed with him and if I
would write an article asking people in Arizona (and America, since he figured
this would catch on) to boycott any product advertised in something other than
English. He told me that there was at least one fast-food establishment and at
least two brands of adult beverages that he no longer purchases because he's
seen billboards touting their products in Spanish.
I told him that he should immediately write a letter to the CEOs of those
companies. Not to complain but to express his gratitude for helping him to
develop healthier eating habits. I also said that I wasn't particularly
interested in a boycott.
"You probably want to see signs printed in I-talian," he said.
Actually, I don't speak a foreign language. I read and write only in English,
though daily communication with readers of The Arizona Republic suggests that
even this might be an exaggerated claim.
All four of my immigrant grandparents spoke Italian, but our parents didn't pass
it along to my brother and me, having been made to feel "foreign" when they were
children and not wanting to have their kids experience it. I've met a number of
people who lived through the same experience, including a Mexican-American
lawyer who'd gone to Cuernavaca, Mexico, in order to study Spanish. His
immigrant parents didn't teach him the language, wanting him to be more
"Since when is it more 'American' not to be able to communicate with people?" he
Arizona residents voted to make English the state's "official" language in 1988,
but that ran into constitutional problems. Some politicians want voters to pass
another such law this year, which is funny given that these same politicians
fight attempts to provide the kind of funding needed to teach some students
The problem isn't language; it's fear. The guy on the phone believed that
Spanish speakers "are going to take over." Billboards and ballots today, he
said, everything else tomorrow. Politicians looking to win votes play up that
fear. They're unwilling or unable to admit that it isn't an "English only"
approach that will save us, but one that promotes "English plus."
Earlier this year, President Bush created what he called the National Security
Language Initiative, a government program designed to "dramatically increase the
number of Americans learning critical need foreign languages such as Arabic,
Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi and others."
The program provides federal money to schools and students to get more kids to
study languages. The government considers it a national-security necessity.
The Department of Education says that fewer than 8 percent of U.S.
undergraduates study a foreign language and only 1 percent have a
Irony is a wonderful English word but only to those who understand the concept.
For example, rather than limiting the use of other languages, it turns out that
we should be passing laws that require our children to learn more.
Reach Montini at (602) 444-8978 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his
blog at montiniblog.azcentral.com.