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No Hablo Español

The US Senate has proposed a law to make English the US's official language for government. While many social scientists of nationalism have discussed the importance of "common" language(s) for a unified national identity, I wonder if such approach is consistent with the reality of today's transnationalism and global competitiveness.

According to the 2000 Census, over 47 million people speak a language other than English at home. This fact is used to alarm the public about the growing fragmentation of US due to immigration. Yet, the census does not account for the fact that some of those people could be bilingual or multilingual. In my household for example, my husband, who is Ethiopian, and I switch between English, Amharic, with snatches of French. If one looks at the statistics on those who speak a language other than English at home, nearly half of them also speak English very well. While people would not disagree with the dominance of English as the "unofficial" language of the US and that perhaps that dominance should be officially recognized, I wonder about the intent and policy implications of such a move, as Spanish has become the 2nd unofficial language of the US.

Is this move by the Senate merely a symbolic gesture, a PR move, to guard against the backlash of giving million of undocumented immigrants amnesty? Or is part of a current trend of polictics of exclusion, which has the US writing laws whose purpose is to exclude people from receiving government services and civil benefits? This is what is unclear about the  proposal and is not being discussed.


In the DforD voting work, providing access to ballots in multiple languages has been a key issue in terms of both legal requirements of non-discrimination and the actual layout and content of the ballots. If all government business is to be conducted in English, what does that mean for providing election materials in languages other than English? Do we declare Spanish as our official second language? Mandarin as our third? Do the states begin to create a list of their other official languages to avoid violating the 1st and the 14th Amendments?

America's dance with monolingualism stands in sharp contrast to European language policy, which has embraced plurilingualism. The Council of Europe's official language policy defines the difference between multilingualism and plurilingualism:

Multilingualism may be attained by simply diversifying the languages on offer in a particular school or educational system, or by encouraging pupils to learn more than one foreign language, or reducing the dominant position of English in international communication. Beyond this, the plurilingual approach emphasises the fact that as an individual person’s experience of language in its cultural contexts expands, from the language of the home to that of society at large and then to the languages of other peoples (whether learnt at school or college, or by direct experience), he or she does not keep these languages and cultures in strictly separated mental compartments, but rather builds up a communicative competence to which all knowledge and experience of language contributes and in which languages interrelate and interact. In different situations, a person can call flexibly upon different parts of this competence to achieve effective communication with a particular interlocutor.

It is the tendency towards binary thinking that leads the US government, informed by pollsters, to think that singing the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish is somehow unAmerican. From my marketing consulting days, the importance of plurilingual approaches to reaching particularly the Hispanic market has proved lucrative for business and a distinct competitive advantage. Has business become more inclusive and perhaps enlightened than politics because it directly engages with the transnational social reality? Even it is to get people to buy more stuff?

As a country of (forced and voluntary) immigrants meeting indigenous peoples, America has always been transnational. Policies of exclusion has been part of that history, but I always thought that the promise and hope of the US is that it became increasingly more inclusive. A plurilingual policy reflects better the promise of American democracy, where the presence of no official language creates not a Tower of Babel, but rather a fluidity of communication where people speak 3 or more languages for inclusive interaction and understanding.


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