Friday, May 19, 2006

National/common/unifying language for the US?

As you may have heard on Language Log, on May 17th-18th, the US Senate approved not one but two amendments - one Republican, one Democrat - on the status of English. The first amendment, by Sen. Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), amends sections 161-2 of Title 4 of the United States Code to state:

English is the national language of the United States. The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America. Unless specifically stated in applicable law, no person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English. If exceptions are made, that does not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or any language other than English. If any forms are issued by the Federal Government in a language other than English (or such forms are completed in a language other than English), the English language version of the form is the sole authority for all legal purposes.

The second, by Senator Salazar (R-Colorado), makes the same section rather more reasonably, if vacuously, say:

English is the common and unifying language of the United States that helps provide unity for the people of the United States. The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the common and unifying language of America. Nothing herein shall diminish or expand any existing rights under the law of the United States relative to services or materials provided by the government of the United States in any language other than English.

The bill is still under debate, so it remains to be seen what, if any, of this will be left - but, after 230 years of doing just fine without one, the USA may or may not soon have a national language. Either way, it's an interesting debate to follow. I remember in San Francisco just about any governmental document seemed to be printed in English, Chinese, and Spanish; that approach - choosing the language according to what people actually spoke on a local level, rather than a national one - strikes me as eminently sensible. What I can't seem to figure out is what the plan is now that both have passed - do they stick both texts in the section, or do they just hash it out later?


Rob said...

I am not terribly familiar with language policy and planning, but I remember taking away from an Arabic sociolinguistics course, half of which was dedicated to language policy in the Arabic world, that language policies are usually only effective when they are ruthlessly carried out. Also, economic considerations are rarely taken into account when implementing language laws. For example, when Algeria arabized its education system, it mandated that all subjects be taught in Arabic, including the sciences. First, Algeria didn't have the funds to hire the Arabic-fluent teachers, and second, graduates in the sciences found themselves unable to work as they knew neither French nor English.

English has the advantage of being an international and academic language for now, but that may not always be the case. I think America would be better off as a bilingual society.

Anonymous said...

Following on Rob's comment, the US has a sad history of ruthlessly carrying out an English-only language policy even without a bill or any official documents to back it up. I'm thinking of the many Amerindian languages in which people couldn't talk in schools without having their mouths washed out with soap or being whipped or beaten. And it only became lawful to speak Hawaiian again in the 1980s after many decades of the same "thou shalt not speak your native language" rule as the Indians suffered. The US is already a multilingual society, and this bill is only a means to try and assuage those monolingual English-speakers who feel threatened by the "foreign non-English-speaking invaders."

Samawel said...

The US, I think, should be multilingual when it comes to official languages. As national languages are concerned, all the Amerindian languages should be official in their parts of the nation, meanwhile as a unifying language, both English and Spanish should be official, quite a large number of Americans speak Spanish as their first/mother language. After all, it is true that the US is filled with languages from the "Old World".

Paul Davidson said...

It does make sense to include Spanish as a national language, with 30 million speakers and growing.

For important things, though, it should really be left up to the states and communities. Language isn't within the federal government's constitutional mandate, and why suppress such a wealth of diversity?

Language homogeneity doesn't result in unity, nor does unity demand it. Just look at Switzerland.

Lameen Souag said...

True enough. However, as I read it, the bill is talking about which language is to be used in documents produced by the federal government; state governments would still have the right to communicate in whatever language they want. The trouble with that is that the federal government is in charge of a rather wide variety of functions - border control and voting are two in particular that I would think rather call out for multilingual employees...

Adrienne said...

I agree with Paul who said that having a "national" language does not necessarily unify a country. Switzerland is not the only example -- Rob's example of Algeria holds true, also.

This legislation has huge ramifications for education. Check out my literacy blog for more details in this respect. The truth is, I have lots more to say about this than I can comprehensively post on my blog! I don't live in the USA (I'm not even American) but as an educator -- yes, I teach English -- I have huge concerns about this legislation.