New American Language

The president of the United States of America tweeted out yesterday, calling the media the “enemy of the people”.  That’s completely unacceptable.  If you think the media is your enemy, I sincerely urge you to educate yourself on the historical importance of freedom of the press and of other “leaders” who have shared similar thoughts throughout recent history.  Spoiler alert, Hitler and Nixon are on the list. At least Nixon had the common sense not to make those comments publicly.

That’s not the main thrust of this post but I just had to get that off of my chest.  A few weeks back, my good friend, Dave C.,  came to visit us from Florida and we had a great time catching up and rehashing old college stories(most of which will never make this blog).

Dave’s a republican and we probably don’t agree on much, politically speaking, but he’s a smart guy and I respect his opinions.  I can’t give him or anyone else a pass for voting in Trump, but we’ll set that aside for now.  We had an interesting discussion about illegal immigrants and about language, which has stuck with me for a few weeks now.  I live in Buffalo, NY and he lives in south Florida.  Dave hasn’t been back to Buffalo in twenty years or more, so I took him on a tour of the city and of the University.  At one point, he commented on how weird it was to just see mostly white people everywhere.  Now, we have plenty of minorities in the area but we live in a very different reality here than he does in Florida and others do in states with a high percentage of Hispanic people, both legal and illegal.  So I take his point when he says that illegal immigration “means more” to people in certain states than to others.  That makes sense to me.  Interestingly enough, we’ve had two big arrests locally of illegal immigrants in the past week.  One of them a mile from my house.

So there’s some background and again, not really the point of this post.  I can hear my three readers right now, saying, “well what the hell are you blathering on about then?”.  Language.  One of the points sometimes made, when talking about immigration, is that English should be the official language of the United States.  Dave said that many of the places he goes to in Florida are filled with people who only speak Spanish.  I can see how that would be frustrating and off-putting if you don’t speak Spanish.

I work in a field where I’m speaking on the phone every day with business people from all over the country and sometimes, all over the world.  When I started out in 1990, I would occasionally run into a business where no one spoke English.  It was usually on the Texas/Mexico border and it was fairly rare.  I was in shock that anyone could successfully run a business without the ability to speak English.  These days, it’s no longer an isolated incident and it certainly is not only happening in border towns.  I call companies all over the country where no one speaks English.  It is annoying and frustrating sometimes because, despite taking Spanish for five years in school, I can’t speak the language or understand it when spoken.  I can muddle through it in print if I have to.

So, should English be our official language?  If so, what does that mean, practically speaking? I wouldn’t want to do anything harsh, like get rid of Spanish options on phone systems or at the bank.  People who don’t speak English need to be able to function in society.  You do have to show a basic proficiency in speaking English to become a citizen but there are exceptions and waivers.  So why are so many people in this country only speaking Spanish?  They’re not all illegal immigrants.  I really don’t have the answer but I think it’s an interesting question to ask.  What’s changed? Why don’t so many people who live here speak English or want to learn how?   Am I losing my progressive, liberal cred by asking this? If so, I’m okay with that.  I don’t think passing a law about our language necessarily makes much sense but it would be nice if everyone who lives here learns to speak English.  I’m not sure Dan Bern would agree with me but I love this song, anyway.  I’m looking forward to seeing him again in a few weeks.

She said, “Love, love, love is everything”
I said, “Okay, I guess, whatever”
She said, “What does that mean?”
I said, “Nothing, it’s just good to have a backup plan”

She said, “I guess that means you don’t got love”
I said, “Maybe I love everyone”
She said, “That’s the same as loving no one”
I said, “Okay, I guess, whatever”

I have a dream of a new American language
One with a little bit more Spanish
I have a dream of a new pop music
That tells the truth with a good beat and some nice harmonies

I have a dream
I have a dream

Tourist towns are a drag sometimes
But in non-tourist towns, you can get beat up
Just for looking a little different
I guess the thing to do is just stay at home
Yeah, but sometimes I think the thing to do
Would be to get a place way out in Missouri
Put down as many months’ rent as you can part with
Tell everybody else you went to France

I said, “Remember that conversation we had about love?
Well, I think you were right”
She said, “I don’t remember saying nothing about love
It must have been a fantasy of the moment”

I have a dream
I have a dream

I have a dream of Michaelangelo on that ceiling
Working through weekend to make more money
I have a dream of replacing Steve Kerr on the Bulls
And being the little white guy they let shoot the threes

I dream of joining the Mafia
And whether people like me is unimportant
I dream of your clock radio
Waking you up with my songs

I have a dream of a new American language
I dream of new beginnings
I dream of saturation bombing
I dream mostly about love

I have a dream
I have a dream
I have a dream
I have a dream


8 thoughts on “New American Language

  1. I think a *law* regarding language is not really something that could be enforced, and, there would be so many special interests trying to influence it that it might actually have the opposite effect. Similarly I think the government should *not* be enforcing on business that the have to make concessions for non-english speakers… similarly.. if you business caters to esperanto speakers you shouldn’t be forced to have an english language version. In reality …there are a lot of regulations (often state by state) that state that you can’t enforce an english-only workplace because of discrimination laws at the federal level.

    When I worked in Mexico I found that english in general was rarely spoken. In Mexico city, most of your senior execs spoke perfect English as they were highly educated outside of Mexico. Even at the middle management layer though English was a real challenge… I know enough Spanish to get by so I could make it work, but, education in Mexico doesn’t prioritize English the way they do in most European countries. Therefore at the working level in Germany, Spain, Italy you can find people that speak English more readily than in Mexico.

    My guess is that what you are seeing is that businesses form employee decisions around the people they are comfortable with.. there is very real and very strong cultural discrimination between groups that you and I see as homogenous. Puerto Rican, Mexican, Honduran / Japanese, Chinese, Korean… In my experience, there is often a level of discrimination that your liberal progressive sensibilities would find appalling. Therefore.. what you likely see are managers hiring *only* people they trust, which is code for discrimination. You can get away with it because nobody goes to the EEOC with a complaint that Guatemalans are blocked out of job decision being made by a Mexican.

    Hopefully, at some point technology will solve this. We’re really close to real-time translation and that should have significant benefits in smoothing all this out. The Cultural bias you aren’t going to fix, but, at least the mechanics of language barriers should eventually go away. Personally, I feel that the illegal immigrant issue should be dealt with in means that would seem harsh… there are laws and they should be enforced. I don’t see a lot of grey area for people that came here illegally at any point. I work with a LOT of immigrants (legal) and they go through the most convoluted / broken system you can imagine to get to be in this country. Fix the system.. make it simpler.. hell.. just a decent work visa program would be a start.. But.. If you “skipped” the line because you could drive here vs having to fly from India I have very little sympathy for you when you get caught.


  2. I recall from my coursework in cultural anthropology that there are some common traits that must be shared for a specific culture to be labeled as such and to maintain its identity. Common language emerges as one of the first global traits that must be present. I am all for developing and maintaining multi-lingual ability and feel that it is important to maintain ethnic traditions (I wish I was taught more of the Italian language by my grandparents when growing up), but I don’t think our “American” culture will be solvent for very long if we can’t expect our citizens to make an effort to at least speak a common language. English is as good as any, and it certainly could be argued that English has been the unofficial language of the US. Yes, I think it should be specified as the “official” language of the United States, but I am not sure to what extent it could be enforced in any practical way.


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