Lost in translationTeddy Roosevelt had it right
If you call the customer service number of any major U.S. business, you are likely to hear: "To continue in English, press 1. Para continuar en espa˝ol, oprima el numero 2 . (To continue in Spanish, press the number 2)."
Since when has Spanish become the de facto second official language of the U.S.?
Let's get a historical perspective. Here is what President Teddy Roosevelt wrote in 1919 regarding immigration and language in America:
"In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin.
"But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American.... There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag.... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.... And we have room for but one sole loyalty, and that is a loyalty to the American people."
Roosevelt had it right. It was not about the skin color of immigrants. It was about adopting American values and a lingua franca that happened to be English.
Each wave of 20th-century immigration - Irish, German, Eastern European, Greek, Italian, Chinese and Indian - brought something unique.
In addition to the variety of foods, we got social customs and festivals. But each of these immigrants assimilated by first adopting English as their working language, even if they spoke their native languages at home.
English has been enriched over its history by incorporating key words from other languages.
My favorite pasttime with my children is to point out how many words that we use on a daily basis came from other languages.
The French, on the other hand, did not allow their language to evolve by incorporating new words and phrases from other languages.
Academie Franšaise has a language police that constantly weeds out any "foreign" words, such as "software" or "hamburger" from their lexicon.
As a result, the French- speaking population is not growing as fast as English.
English has become the de facto lingua franca of the world for business and diplomacy, the recent temper tantrum displayed by French President Jacques Chirac notwithstanding, when he walked out of a meeting upon hearing a French businessman speak English. Mon dieu!
However, in Canada, everything official is done in two languages.
Even though every Canadian child is taught French and English, the French Canadians would rather not have to deal with English, and vice versa. As a result, Canada has two identities and two cultures.
The English speakers identify with a world view similar to that of Americans and British, whereas the French speakers identify with France's world view.
The vast influx of Spanish speakers in this country in the past two decades has changed the linguistic makeup of the USA.
Whereas every other ethnic group learned English, many Hispanics refuse to do so. They have Spanish language media - radio, TV, magazines and newspapers - meeting their communications needs.
They have little interest in linguistic assimilation, as envisaged by Roosevelt.
Among the many arguments I have heard against learning English, the most interesting one goes like this: "My ancestors have lived here since the 17th century. We have always spoken Spanish. We did not cross the border; the border crossed us!"
Whereas I respect the Southwest's Spanish heritage, it is time for the descendants of the original conquistadors to learn English, just to communicate with others.
The proper way to immigrate is by learning English. The U.S. government requires potential immigrants to demonstrate ability to read, write and speak English.
However, the vast majority of the 12 million illegal immigrants in this country still are living in a Spanish-speaking world.
Before granting them wholesale amnesty and making them U.S. citizens, our politicians would do well to insist, as President Roosevelt did nearly a century ago, that the newest aspirants to American citizenship learn the English language.
Shyam Jha teaches at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. The view expressed is his own.