English is a language which enjoys a 94 market share in the United States, but some Americans seem to think that the language is actually in danger. So to prop it up, four states, West Virginia, Kansas, Missouri, and Oregon, want to make English their official language, joining the 28 that already have such a law on their books and putting an end to competition from less-expensive foreign imports like Spanish, Chinese, and Hindi.
Even former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has gone on record favoring a law to make English the official language of the U.S. Gingrich and other supporters of the latest wave of English-only legislation argue that offshoring language weakens the American economy: speakers of foreign languages are illegally taking words out of Americans’ mouths. But according to the 2000 U.S. Census, foreigners actually use words that English-speakers won’t.
Supporters of English-only laws claim such legislation also strikes a blow for world-wide human rights: foreign languages are often produced in third-world countries by exploited child laborers working long hours, for low wages, under intolerable working conditions. Speaking English sends a message to Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Malaysia: if you want our business, you better speak our language.
But the rest of the world isn’t so sure. On Jan. 16, French Deputy Jacques Myard announced that English is on its way out, in France and in the world, and that if any foreign language should be mandatory in French schools, it should be Arabic. The French haven’t been very good at picking winning languages. In the 1970s they put their money on Russian, not English, as the language to watch. And of course they’re still hoping that French itself will make a comeback.
In another anti-English move, on Jan. 23 the Slovak Republic pulled the BBC World Service off the air for broadcasting in English, a direct violation of Slovakia’s requirement that all programming be in a language that Slovak citizens can understand, either Slovak or Czech. Meanwhile, residents of both the Czech and Slovak Republics seem to think that English is the ticket to instant riches, and English books are flying off the shelves.
And the Indian state of Karnataka is threatening to close all public and private schools teaching in English in direct violation of the law that mandates the state language, Kannada, as the language of instruction. But English, not Kannada, is Karnataka’s most important natural resource, fueling the state’s main industry, call centers for British and American corporations.
While opponents of English might see these moves to restrict the language on the world scene as signs that English may soon go the way of French, Latin, and Russian, they are just the latest indications that the march of English around the globe remains unstoppable.
Despite the fears of the English-only crowd, English is also unstoppable in the United States, its adopted country (the language came here from England, though that was a long time ago, before Tony Blair turned England into the fifty-first state).
West Virginia, the latest state to push for official English, is also the state with the greatest percentage of monolingual English speakers in the nation. Iowa, another state where English has monopoly status, made English its official language in 2002. Across the U.S., where English has managed to wipe out every domestic or foreign language it’s encountered in the past two centuries, the free market linguistics on which this great nation was founded is retreating as Americans move to protect a language that hasn’t been endangered since the French invaded England in 1066.
But language can’t be legislated very well, either in the Slovak Republic or in the United States. In 1923 the state of Illinois made American, not English, its official language. The move was a protest against the British, who had dragged their feet over independence for Ireland. But the Brits ignored the Illinois law even more successfully than they had ignored the Irish. Illinois residents ignored the law as well. They continued to speak English, not American, and to study English in schools that were required by law to use American as the language of instruction.
The true test of a language is its ability to survive the competition, and in 1969 Illinois gave up on its American experiment and quietly changed its official language back to English. That hasn’t stopped people in Illinois from speaking whatever language they want. Which means it hasn’t stopped most of the state’s residents from speaking English.