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  • Language is a facade. So is an official language.

    A faade is the front of a building  any architect knows that. But a faade is also a face, and faces arent always what they seem. Sometimes they reveal whats behind them, sometimes they hide it. So faades are also false fronts.

    Language is a façade. Sometimes it’s literal: a face is just a face, and a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes it’s figurative, hiding a reality instead of pointing to it: words are masks we put on to meet the world, and a cigar is, well, whatever you desire.

    Should all buildings look alike? all languages sound the same? People who want to make English the official language of the United States seem to think so. Surely, they argue, if Americans all spoke the same language we’d all look the same, sound the same, think the same. We’d all be American.  

    Besides, they say, making English official would protect it from the illegal encroachment of Spanish. And all those immigrants who come here not speaking English will have to learn it or get out. Because making English official also sends the message: We don’t want your kind around here. 2.9% of Iowa’s residents speak a language other than English, and more than half of that number speak English as well. But Iowans found this so threatening they made English their official language in 2002.

    We don’t need laws to get people speaking English. Without an official language, the U.S. has become the graveyard of foreign languages, the most monolingual country in the world. Then we complain that we can’t understand our trading partners, or our enemies. The army boots out every specialist in Arabic, Farsi or Korean if they happen to be gay. Then it petitions Congress for more funds because it’s desperate for translators.

    According to the 2000 Census, 94% of the people in the U.S. speak English, and everybody else is learning it as fast as they can. Despite this headlong switch to English, when a CD of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in Spanish was released last year, George Bush insisted that the national anthem should only be sung in English. But the first Spanish translation of the national anthem was commissioned by the U.S. Bureau of Education in 1918, and backed by a mariachi band, Bush himself sang patriotic songs in Spanish when he campaigned for president.

    George Bush and a mariachi band on the campaign trail

    The same supporters of official English who believe that the Star-Spangled Banner and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution can only be understood in their original language have no trouble understanding the sacred texts of their religion not in the original, but in translation. When it comes to language, they believe firmly in separating church and state.

    They also insist that language is the glue that binds a nation. But a common language didn’t hold North and South Korea together, or the two Irelands, or India and Pakistan, or England and its restless American colony, the one that became the United States.  

    If the U.S. won’t make English official, then some super-patriots want to take things into their own hands. At Philadelphia’s Geno’s Steaks, you can only buy the “original” Philly cheese steak from owner Joey Vento if you order it in English. Joey will tell you that his Italian immigrant parents didn’t learn English very well, but they did learn it. Today’s immigrants are making that effort too, and many of them learn English better and faster than earlier generations did.

    Joey Vento of Geno's wants you to order in English

    Speaking the same language won’t pull us together as a nation. A common language didn’t hold America together in 1861 or reunite it in 1865.

    Sometimes the buildings on a block look the same, sometimes they’re different. Uniformity and variety make architecture interesting, but the block is still a block. Countries work that way too, with some  variety, some uniformity. It takes more than a language to make a country. Laws and customs and traditions and shared interests bring a nation together; language is just the façade we use to greet the world.
    This essay appears as part of the exhibition entitled FACADES at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Oct. 19 through Dec. 30, 2007

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