I just finished reading Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way.” It was an enjoyable and educational read, as all of his books are. It was published 20 years ago, but a lot of the information holds true today. One chapter that caught my attention was at the end of the book, titled “The Future of English.” Bryson described efforts by politicians to legislate English being the official language of the United States:
In many areas, English speakers are fearful of being swamped. Some even see it as a conspiracy, among them the former U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa, who wrote in 1987 that he believes that “a very real move is afoot to split the U.S. into a bilingual and bicultural society.”
Horror of horrors! Call out the army; we can’t risk anyone becoming bilingual! As Bryson goes on to say, “The most unpleasant charge is that all of this is a thinly veiled cover for racism, or at least rampant xenophobia.” It is difficult not to arrive at that conclusion, especially when you consider the same politicians who are pushing for English as the official language don’t seem to care that so many within their own ranks aren’t all that proficient in its use. Two of our most recent presidents (whose last name rhymes with “push”) could have used some lessons in how to speak English intelligibly.
It’s also telling that conservative politicians aren’t pushing for more funding for foreign language classes in schools. Why should non-native English speakers have to learn our language in this increasingly global society? Why aren’t we learning theirs? The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, Hispanics will account for nearly 25 percent of our population. Are we supposed to pretend they don’t exist? Stay safe in our English-only-speaking bubbles?
I would love to be fluent in Spanish, French, German, Russian, Japanese or any of another dozen languages. I studied Spanish for seven years and could get along all right in a Spanish-speaking country, but I’m not at all fluent. I also took a semester of Arabic in college, and I would have liked to learn more. It’s a beautiful language whose importance is hard to overstate.
So here’s a modest proposal. Instead of trying to legislate language, why don’t we set up reciprocating language programs? Native English speakers would pair up with non-native speakers, and they would teach each other their languages. I would teach you English and you would teach me Italian. A certain amount of language can be learned in books, but the real learning comes from speaking it often. I think a program like that would be a lot more beneficial for everybody than trying to force English on people who are learning it anyway.