Multilingualism is a help, not a threat to English
Ventura County Star
October 13, 2006
By Roger E. Hernandez
With a communist madman taking North Korea nuclear, with an Islamist mystic threatening to take Iran down the same path, with nobody so far able to stop the third member of the Axis of Evil from tearing itself apart, and with the most powerful nation to ever have existed led by a Yale "legacy" so utterly in over his head that he has no idea what to do about any of it, one tries to look for good news somewhere, just for the change of pace.
Ah, here's something from The Associated Press about Bogota — right here in the U.S. of A., not the capital of Colombia:
"TRENTON, N.J. — A bid by a town to ask voters to make English its official language has ended because the state's highest court refused to hear its case."
It's a little old, from late September. But it will have to do. It is fun to note that Steve Lonegan, the mayor of Bogota who pushed to make English official in his town after he grew alarmed at a McDonald's billboard in Spanish, embarrassed himself a little more — if that is possible — when he called the court's decision a "real attack on America."
Meanwhile, the FBI finds itself less able to stop real attacks on America because it does not have enough Arabic-speaking agents. Unbelievable as it sounds five years after 9/11, exactly 33 of 12,000 agents have "even a limited proficiency in Arabic."
Yet, outside of Bogota, linguistic news is not all upbeat. At least four states are considering making English official, and a dozen cities have either passed ordinances or are thinking about it, says USA Today. U.S. English, the national group pushing English-only, called it "the most action we've seen in about 10 years."
Its action aimed at a solving a problem that does not exist, and which creates difficulties in solving problems that do exist.
Making English the official language is supposed to somehow force unwilling immigrants to learn English before we are all swamped in a sea of foreign languages. It's hogwash. Eight out of 10 people in the United States speak only English at home, says the Census Bureau. Only about 11 million speak English "not well" or "not at all."
You can bet the vast majority of them are new immigrants. As to their kids, a new study by Douglas Massey at Princeton University and Ruben Rumbaut and Frank Bean at the University of California, Irvine, forecasts it is foreign languages, not English, that are endangered. Only 5 percent of the grandchildren of Spanish-speaking immigrants in Southern California will speak fluent Spanish, the study predicts. Among fourth-generation European immigrants native-language retention is only 1 percent.
Even the descendants of immigrants speak English only. How multilingual can other Americans be? Not very. Few native English-speakers learn another language. They can order burritos or remember a little high-school French, but that's about it.
Here in the United States, 43.6 percent of high-school students took at least one foreign-language class in 2002, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, up one-third since 1990. But at the college level, enrollment dropped from 16 percent in 1960 to 8 percent in 2002, according to the American Council on Education.
There are too many misplaced worries about foreigners speaking their language.
And there are not enough worries that having memorized la plume de ma tante will not help Americans do business overseas — or help Americans catch foreigners who are more interested in blowing up things than speaking.
— Roger Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.