A look through the past week’s headlines shows that Americans are concerned about language in all its aspects, from the political to the mundane, and that none of the linguistic issues of the day appears close to being settled. First the political:
A small town in Maryland may make English its official language (Baltimore Sun), joining a New Jersey borough where an English-only referendum is on the November ballot (Bergen County Record). The Chicago Sun-Times editorializes against such small-minded silliness. A demonstration in a North Texas town to protest legislation banning hiring or renting to illegal aliens, or letting them play on city-sponsored recreational teams, is met by hecklers who cajole marchers to speak English, not Spanish (Ft. Worth Star-Telegram). And A Texas columnist satirizes this anti-Spanish backlash by offering to oust Spanish from the English language, changing San Antonio to St. Anthony, and Texas itself, which comes from a native word meaning ‘friend,’ to Friend.
At the same time that nativists insist that today’s immigrants are refusing to assimilate, the Atlanta Constitution reports that immigrants are rushing to learn English. There are 18,000 immigrants on a waiting list for English classes in Massachusetts alone, and employers all over the country are setting up English classes for their employees because the schools can’t keep up with the demand. Everyone from scam artists to Walt Disney is riding the learn-English boom, and Spanish-language TV is filled with ads for home-study English courses that will lighten customers wallets even though such courses may not increase their vocabularies.
So powerful is the pull of English that a Republican Congressman recently warned at a hearing that native American languages are endangered and urged listeners to take advantage of federal programs to preserve them (Albuquerque Journal). Oklahoma too is taking measures to recover the linguistic heritage of native Americans (Tulsa World).
While a British newspaper blames the decline of foreign language study in the U.K. on years of Tory rule (The Independent), laments over the loss of Welsh and Scots Gaelic appear regularly, and an Ontario journalist urges protection for America’s unofficial official language, other indicators – not the least of which is the status of English in Quebec – suggest that English will not become the world’s only language in the foreseeable future.
There are upticks reported this week in Arabic classes in California and Kansas, due in part to the continued prominence of the Middle East in the headlines. And many middle-class, monolingual English speakers want their own children to grow up bilingual because they see learning languages as an advantage in a global economy (Atlanta Constitution). The Idaho Statesman reports the opening of two Spanish-only preschools in Boise, schools where one-quarter of the students enroll because their parents know that they must make an effort to preserve their children’s Spanish in the face of an all-engulfing English, while three-quarters are there because their Anglo parents want them to learn a valuable foreign language from the ground up.
Finally, while the Financial Times advises that the best way to connect with customers who don’t speak English is to do so in their language, and Spanish-language cable channels are big business in America, the popular telenovellas and talk shows of Spanish TV are being ported to English so that the growing number of American Hispanics who have lost their Spanish, or who never had any to begin with, can watch alongside their grandparents and recent immigrants.
This push and pull between English and other languages in the U.S. is not new, and it’s not going to come to an end any time soon. What’s interesting about these news stories is both how many there are and how passionate are the feelings aroused by the issues. But politics isn’t our only public language concern, and in the next post I’ll take a look at the other language stories that round out the picture.