I was at the DMV this morning to renew my (uh-hmm, expired) license and there was a man in line speaking a language that I didn’t recognize. He stood before the counter as the agent asked him what he needed, but the man just made odd hand gestures and shook his head confusedly. The agent said “well if you don’t know, I sure don’t know!” I chuckled to myself, although I did feel slightly sorry for both parties. The man must eventually have been able to communicate his purposes because I later saw him sitting before an examiner to take the vision and sign tests. I said to the woman next to me (who was Latino but spoke fluent English), “oh, the poor person who has to administer his tests!” She laughed but expressed pity for the man, saying “they really should have translators in here.” Excuse me, huh? I don’t have any idea what language this guy was even speaking, but I do know there are a lot of possibilities. So let me understand this correctly: the state is supposed to supply a translator for every potential native tongue it might encounter? Just a nutty thought, but perhaps it’d be easier to require prospective applicants to bring their own translators! This is a perfect illustration of the problem with the United States’ refusal to designate American English as its official national language. Sadly, the issue is not seriously considered because often the loudest lobbyists are those who also happen to be openly racist and opponents use things like that to disregard the discussion as altogether prejudiced toward other nations. The actual arguments against a national language are that it would ostracize foreigners within our borders, and since 96% of the population already speaks English, that such legislation is unnecessary. Unfortunately, both of these reasons are specious.
If a capable young adult is allowed to live indefinitely with his parents and is not required to get a job or pursue an education, most people would agree that his parents have done him a disservice. Mom and dad believed Junior would do these things voluntarily and didn’t pressure him. However, being under no pressure, he saw no need to disturb his comfort zone. Non-English speaking Americans (which should be an oxymoron) are definitely ostracized, but it is because they were not made to learn English when they became citizens, and thus they never did. As a result, they will frequently encounter situations just like this guy at the DMV. These days of course, Hispanics run into very fewer problems since Spanish translations are increasingly available. This may be great for the Hispanics (arguably it isn’t), but what about those speaking French, German, and whatever crazy language that guy was speaking today? Here’s where the silliness of the multi-language idea becomes plain. It is absurd to think state and federal government offices should be required to staff a translator for every language. Now, I feel sure the lady in the DMV knew that and probably was referring only to the main ones. So let’s say the DMV has a translator for Spanish, French, German and even Italian. People of those nationalities would appreciate it and feel “included.” But what then of the Dutch or the Finnish? They are further ostracized because their languages were not important enough for the government to incorporate. From this angle, the U.S. must either accommodate every conceivable language (which we determined was ridiculous and cost-prohibitive) or none at all by designating a single national language. Anywhere in between, it is discriminatory to provide translation resources for some languages and to neglect others. But if a country has an official language, it is entirely acceptable to expect every immigrant to learn it. (P.S. Immigrants would know this up front and could always change their minds if they didn’t like the idea.) It is a foolish notion that we are being kind by letting foreigners remain isolated by the language barrier.
As for the 96% who already know English – especially those who learned it as a second language – it is an insult for the government to cater to foreigners who are unwilling to follow suit. In fact, the legislation that would officially make English our national language is very important for three reasons: 1) it would cause the naturalization process to require mandatory basic English skills, 2) businesses and government offices would be free of the burden of providing multiple translations, and 3) nationalities whose languages are obscure would not feel left. Is all this to say that other languages are unwelcome in the United States? Certainly not! If Germans who have become American citizens want to retain their language for purpose of heritage, nothing is to prevent or even discourage them from doing so. But the concept of the “melting pot” is crucial, where different ingredients eventually blend and take on one unified form. Having immigrants from many countries and cultures is something that makes America special, but we still need the common thread of a national language that binds our citizens together as one distinct nation.