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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Ours Is a Land of Many Languages

April 06, 2002|DOMENICO MACERI | Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.

In the mid-1700s Benjamin Franklin complained about German-English bilingual street signs in Philadelphia. Not much has changed in the U.S. about language worries.

These days though, it's mainly Spanish that raises concerns. Letters to the editors of American newspapers about the importance of the English language are commonplace. One recent one stated that we should keep the heritage language alive at home; but when we go to the bank, shopping or work, we should speak English.

To a large extent the reader was absolutely right. The U.S. is primarily an English-speaking country. Yet throughout its history, it has been a multilingual country too. Spanish, Italian, French, Apache, Cherokee and other languages have all been part of the linguistic landscape.

According to U.S. English, an organization created to protect the English language in the United States, 329 foreign languages are spoken in the U.S. But Spanish is without a doubt the main "competitor" to English these days.

Major American companies use Spanish to attract customers. AT&T and other phone companies ask you to choose between English and Spanish when you use a phone card. ATMs ask the same question. Commercials in Spanish are ubiquitous.

And just as American companies make the sensible choice to address potential customers in their languages, educators use Spanish and other languages to reach immigrant children who don't know English. The government also uses foreign languages to provide services to those who have limited English skills.

Politicians have discovered that a language other then English may provide an entree to voters' hearts and minds.

The most visible example of using Spanish for political gain is President Bush. In the 2000 campaign, Bush often sprinkled his speeches with Spanish phrases. Rival Al Gore eventually adopted a similar tactic.

Unfortunately, some view the existence of languages other than English as a cancer that needs to be excised. That explains the 27 states that have passed English-only laws. It also explains the virtual elimination of bilingual education programs in several states, including California.

These attacks on foreign languages produce very little. Rather than pass English-only laws, which make immigrants feel unwelcome, we should look at the linguistic abilities newcomers possess and make use of them.

There is no doubt that English is the nation's dominant language Anyone willing to participate in American life needs to know this language. But knowledge of other languages is also vital.

The strength of the United States has always been its people and our ability to integrate the energy brought in by immigrants. Regardless of what language people brought into this country, their contributions have built the nation.

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