Breaking the Language Barrier

3 years ago ccwa 0

merica+12+order+in+english!In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “We have room for but one language in this country and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” Though President Roosevelt’s words seem hopelessly outdated, movements within the last two years to make English the singular official language of United States institutions like courts, schools, and government protocol prove that the English-only push is alive and well. Proponents of the theory like the group ProEnglish argue that in a pluralistic nation like the United States, the role of government should be to focus on the similarities that unite Americans and thus preserve English as America’s common, unifying language.

In reality, it’s not uncommon for Americans to be bilingual. In a 2012 article published in Psychology Today, Francis Grosjean noted that while the US Census Bureau does not keep track of bilingualism (unlike other countries like, say, Canada), language questions on censuses since 1980 have demonstrated the spread of bilingual Americans. In 2007, the American Community Survey found that just over 55 million individuals in America spoke a language other than English at home; of those 55 million, 51 million also knew and used English and were therefore bilingual. This chunk of 51 million bilingual Americans represents 18 percent of the population—and if we include the number of bilingual children under the age of 5 in the bilingual calculus, we reach a figure about 20% of the American population. Yet even this survey falls short of reflecting the true proportion of bilingual Americans; as Michael Erard points out in a 2012 New York Times article, survey questions that ask about languages spoken inside the home miss out on the thousands of individuals who use some language other than English in some capacity in the workplace. A better indicator of multiple language proficiency, suggests Erard, is the model used by the European Commission in 2006. In this survey, the Commission asked respondents about ability to hold a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue.

Instead of being united by a single language, we are united by a system of values that necessarily includes the confluence of cultures. It’s not a new idea that the United States is a nation founded on the hope of a better life for those fleeing their home country; by refusing to extend the promise of this same hope to contemporary immigrants, we lose the essential part of American values.

Mario Vargas Llosa echoes this point in his 2006 article “A wall of lies,” published in the Spanish newspaper El País. Vargas Llosa writes that the worst part of life for an immigrant to the United States was not the physical suffering the woman and her husband endured prior to coming to the United States. Instead, according to the woman herself, “the worst part was that there was no hope that life would get better in the future. This is the main difference in the United States.” This is it, the American dream: when you work hard, life will get better here.

Americans don’t lose anything as a result of cultural exchange. Rather, we deepen our understanding of our own values, the essence of which lie in a confluence of cultures anyway – and with the fall of imperialism and the rise of globalization, we’ve come to realize that “polyglot boarding house” doesn’t sound so bad. In the end, Ariel Dorfman may have put it best: by embracing multilingualism Americans don’t lose Shakespeare, but rather gain Cervantes.


by Shannon Fillingim

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