NEW YORK, April 13, 2013 — The United States, contrary to popular belief, has no official language. Federal legislators have proposed laws to make English the official business language of the United States, and every year that legislation dies.
What if we got serious about passing federal legislation to mandate English as the official language for all government and business affairs, written and oral? Why should we?
Making English the official language would encourage new migrants to learn the language of the country they have adopted as theirs. The end goal is to unite the American people, while improving the lives of immigrants and native-born inhabitants.
There would be savings; official English would save billions in federal spending. The direct cost of translators and bilingual education alone are billions, and many of these costs are born by local governments. In Los Angeles in 2002, $15 million, or 15 percent of the election budget, was devoted to printing ballots in seven languages and hiring bilingual poll workers. Los Angeles county hires over 400 full-time court interpreters at a cost of $265 per day. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed into law Executive Order 13166, which forces health care providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid payments to hire interpreters for any patient who requires one, at the providers’ own expense.
The indirect costs of accidents and lost productivity caused by the millions of people who don’t speak English are billions more. These have included fatal traffic accidents, workplace accidents, and accidents caused when medical professionals could not understand patients or patients’ families.
Many second generation immigrants who don’t speak English find themselves negatively affected by limited employment opportunities. Learning English has always opened doors for immigrants and their families, allowing them to enter the American mainstream and move up the socioeconomic ladder. Over the last two generations, though, that ideal has been distorted. Requiring immigrants to learn English, and the English language itself has been called a “tool of oppression,” attempts to encourage English acquisition denounced as racist. Maurice Ferre, former mayor of Miami has declared that there is no need for Spanish speakers to learn English. “We’re talking about Spanish as a main form of communication, as an official language, not on the way to English.”
Unsurprisingly, the ranks of immigrants, especially Spanish-speaking immigrants, who do not speak English are swelling. As the government provides immigrants with bilingual education; government-funded interpreters in schools, police departments and hospitals; with dual-language driver’s license exams, tax forms, voting ballots, and services, it has made it easy for them not to learn English. In Hartford, Connecticut, far from the border states where we usually think this concentrated, over 40 percent of the residents are Hispanic, and half the Spanish-speaking residents do not speak English. City services are all provided in Spanish, employees at most businesses speak Spanish, and there’s no real need for Spanish speakers to learn English. Hartford is becoming a Latin American city.
Across the country, 21.3 million people were classified as “limited English proficient” by the 2000 census — 8 percent of the population. Almost a quarter of them, 5 million, were born in the United States.
In some Florida high schools, the failure rates on the states Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which is required for graduation, exceed 20 percent. Because many of those who fail don’t speak fluent English, there have been demands to either abolish the exam, or to provide it in Spanish. We are creating classes of people who will never need to speak English and who will never learn it.
The percentages of foreign-language speakers are of course larger in states like California, New Mexico and Texas, but the increasing reluctance to learn English isn’t just among Spanish speakers. The United States is home to native speakers of more than 350 languages, and it finds itself catering to people who speak Arabic, French and Chinese, as well as Spanish.
English is not our official language now, and that means government has to provide services in dozens of languages to accommodate a non-English-speaking population. By catering to non-English speakers, we are creating linguistic ghettos. These are also employment ghettos.
Once upon a time, immigrants were eager to learn English. English fluency with the goal of assimilating into the mainstream was once an explicit goal of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Now the executive director of LULAC can declare, “We cannot assimilate and we won’t!” Still, people around the world believe that it’s important to learn English, and most immigrants, if confronted with the need, would probably try to learn it.
But it is not necessary. Our failure to push English as our official language has eliminated the need to learn English. If we keep up this course, we could become like Canada and fracture along ethnic/racial lines. And even with a population a tenth of ours, the Canadian government’s attempts to cater to two language groups cost over $2.4 billion per year.
If we are going to be a united people, people who understand each other and can work together with people from anywhere in the country, we will have to have an official national language. Let that language be the language of our fundamental law - the Constitution - and our declaration of independence. The solution to our linguistic fracturing is quite simple: English. It’s not just a language; it’s an idea whose time has come.
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