Whatever Happened to English?


By Richard Colman, California Political News and Views

Americans might not know it, but English is — or was — the national language of the United States.

 The Declaration of Independence is written in English.  So is the Constitution.

 Until recent decades, people who wanted to be part of American society had to know English.

 Today, America appears to be a polyglot population.  Some people living in America –citizens, non citizens, or both — do not speak English.

 When you buy gasoline, there is a good chance that the person behind the counter does not, at least in California, speak English.  Ask that person what the cost of a car wash is, and, in all likelihood, you get an answer in some foreign tongue.

 Make a telephone call to some business, and the caller receives a message in English and some other language.

 Drive by certain businesses, and there are signs in English and some other language.

 Look at ballot packages.  They are likely to be printed in English and several other languages.  This practice can be confusing.

 Is America becoming like Canada, which is a bilingual nation?  Go into a Canadian store and buy something like toothpaste.  On the box, there is both English and French.  Perhaps, America is going in the same direction.  Will there be more than one language on the container of something that is purchased.

 English is not easy to learn.  The pronunciation of some, often one-syllable, words can vary.  For example, why do “food” and “good’ not rhyme?

 And English has some weird homonyms — like “one” and “won” — or “sight,” “cite,” and “site.”

 Despite all the difficulties associated with English, millions, perhaps billions, of people all over the world who are not native speakers of English, are learning or trying to learn English.   Is America one of those nations in which English, the presumed national language, is on its way to extinction?

 For centuries, America has welcomed immigrants from all over the world.  But, until recent decades, there was a rule:  Learn to speak English.  Often government was not involved with foreign languages.  (There are exceptions in areas like international diplomacy.)

 Immigrants who needed to learn English could go to a place of worship or a special school to learn English.  Now, for some reason, governmental agencies are mandating that schools and other institutions offer education in English and some other language.

 One of the great virtues of living in the United States is that the country has a common currency (the American dollar) and a common market.  A common market means that goods shipped between and among the 50 states do not have to go though some sort of bureaucracy (like a customs office). 

 However, total free trade does not exist.  On some items like tobacco and alcohol, a given state may have a different tax from another state.  Also, different states have different sales and gasoline taxes.

 Another great virtue of America is — or was — a common language.  Everyone in America is supposed to speak English.  Who knows if that rule still applies?

 A common language, like English, gives a nation a sense of unity.  What would America be like if each of the 50 states had its own language?  (Think of Europe.)

 Differences in language within a nation, can be divisive.  In October 1995, the Canadian province of Quebec, which is French-speaking, held a referendum in which voters could choose between seceding from the rest of Canada, which is English-speaking or remaining as part of Canada.  The vote was extremely close.  In the referendum, 50.58 percent voted “no,” meaning that Quebec would remain part of Canada.   If the majority had voted “yes,” Quebec was prepared to issue a declaration of independence from the rest of Canada.

 In November of 1986, Californians passed a ballot measure, making English the official language of the state.  There were 5.1 million votes (73 percent) in favor of the measure, and 1.9 million votes (27 percent) against the amendment.

 The time has come for Congress to pass a law, making English America’s official national language.  Of course, individuals are free to speak whatever language they want to one another.  And private businesses should be able to advertise and communicate with customers in any language the businesses want.

But when it comes to official business, English must be the national language.

The teacher writes English rules on the blackboard. Learn language.

Richard Colman is the founder and president of Biomed Inc., a biotechnology, publishing, and informatics company.  He is a biochemist and earned masters and doctoral degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.  He lives in Orinda, California.

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ENGLISH got put on the back burner when those who could not speak it were catered to -instead of being told to come back when they could make their wishes known in our language-translators were hired, called upon, etc., to interpret for them-my first memory of this practice was back in the mid sixties and it has only gotten worse- Whenever I have travelled to another country I was on my own with the language barrier– a translator was never called to help me.