Inside the Capitol

Thursday, October 12, 2006

10-16 More worries emerge about non-English speakers

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- English language measures are seeing a big resurgence on local and state ballots next month, including neighboring Arizona.
Ten years ago, the efforts were for English-only or official English laws, but those ran into charges of racism. Now we are seeing efforts to make English our national language or common language.
The push is being stoked by the immigration debate. The U.S. Senate passed two different pieces of legislation last spring making English either our national language or our common and unifying language.
The only possible good coming out of this is that Congress is so bad at solving real problems that it might as well concentrate on problems that don't exist.
America is the most open society in the world so it is natural that some of us would fret that our language and culture will be hijacked by foreigners. But it never has come close to happening.
I chuckled on Columbus Day that a century ago we agonized over Italians not learning English as quickly as the Germans did 100 years earlier. But back then Benjamin Franklin warned that Germans were going to "germinate" our country and never fit in.
And now Italians have become so well accepted that they have a national holiday of their own. Columbus Day isn't officially an Italian holiday but they started it and they've made it as much their own day as St. Patrick's Day is for the Irish.
The truth is that the United States has become known as a graveyard for foreign languages. Older immigrants often don't learn our language well. But their children do. They're usually bilingual. And by the time the next generation comes along, they speak only English.
That is sure to make many Americans happy. But it shouldn't. A monolingual nation can't be as competitive in a global economy. This summer, my wife and I were in Belgium, a nation with three official languages, none of them English.
A guide told us that if, during our two hours to stroll around the town, we got lost, we could ask directions of anyone because English was everyone's fourth language. Sure enough, we had a chance to test it and it worked.
So don't lose too much sleep about Spanish language billboards or about the Spanish language and culture taking over our nation. All immigrants know that learning English is the way to get ahead. And nearly all of them came here to get ahead.
On the other side of the coin, English will not be the global language anytime soon either. That's about as far-fetched as the Spanish language taking over the United States.
The world holds three times as many native speakers of Chinese as native speakers of English. Although English is the second most common native language, we are losing ground to languages from countries with higher birth rates.
In 40 years, English is projected to cede second place to the South Asian linguistic group and soon after, we'll be passed by Arabic and Spanish. The proportion of native speakers of English is projected to drop from over 8 percent in 1950 to less than 5 percent in 2050.
The strength of English is among those who adopt it as a second language, often for business or technological reasons. A large majority of science and technology is communicated in English, mainly because we developed it.
English-speaking countries dominate world trade so it's good business to speak English. It's also good for tourism in non-English-speaking countries. And I don't have to tell you about the worldwide marketing of American products, movies and television. We're everywhere.
The Internet is overwhelmingly English, for now. Air and sea traffic is controlled in a simplified English. There are many variables affecting how widely English will spread but it is likely to be a simplified English that may have many different dialects.
MON, 10-16-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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