Campaigning through Puerto Rico, the Republican candidates employed harsh rhetoric about immigration reform, and Rick Santorum was widely rebuked for his statement that Puerto Ricans must learn English in order to be admitted as the 51st state to the U.S.
Santorum was defeated decisively, but the Puerto Rico primary has once again risen the issue of whether the U.S. should declare English the official language of the country. In the past, particularly during the Florida primary, the candidates have not hesitated to attack one another to better themselves. In his string of negative ad campaigns in Flordia, Mitt Romney accused Newt Gingrich of calling Spanish “the language of the ghetto.” While this may have contributed to Romney’s victory, should this really be an issue?
Given the daunting issues we face today, pursuing legislation to make English the official language would be overbearing and unnecessary for several reasons.
First, with 82.1 percent fluent speakers and a whopping 96 percent claiming proficiency, English is the unofficial official language in America. In order to effectively participate in political life and commerce in the country, it is to one’s advantage to learn English. Knowledge of the English language not only opens up doors that lead to the realization of the American dream of increased economic opportunity, but it makes integration into American society less stressful. Thus, there is already an incentive to learn English, it just has to be exploited and government coercion is unnecessary here.
Second, an official language will not discourage multilingualism, as people will continue to speak their native languages. As a child, I lived in a country where over 250 languages are spoken and English is the recognized official language. From that experience, there is no real difference between a “languageless” country such as the United States and having an official language. Most people still spoke in their native tongues but communicated in English in the public space.
Third, learning a new language is a gradual process that cannot be achieved overnight. Most immigrants come here as adults, making the learning process even harder. While they may never become fluent English speakers, their children and future generations will be. Thus, those who view other languages as threats to the preservation of our national English heritage are worrying needlessly.
However, although I agree that multilingualism should be encouraged because it promotes diversity and serves an as an asset in an increasingly globalized world, English should be the primary language of learning in the school system. While ESL and other foreign language-based programs in schools are beneficial in helping foreign students absorb into our education system, it would also be to their advantage to learn English, as this will maximize their capacity to excel outside the classroom.
America is a nation that prides itself on tolerance and its multicultural heritage, so a decision to pass legislation is unwarranted and will only play into reinforcing the suspicion that government is on a mission to infringe deeper into our privacy.
Contrary to popular belief, promulgating law that recognizes English as the official language of the U.S. would not lead to an overnight feeling of solidarity. It may however, intensify the alienation of minority groups. In addition, how would it be enforced? Would people be penalized or arrested for not being able to speak English fluently? Would the government be obligated to fund programs that provide English lessons? What are the cost-benefits? Questions such as these would have to be taken into account before considering passing such law.
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