TrÃ¡igame sus pobres, su cansado, sus masas amontonadas anhelando respirar libremente…
Well, that’s the way that Altavista’s Babel Fish translates Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus“ to Spanish. I’d have to ask my Spanish friends if that’s anything close to the actual translation, but it serves its purpose for now.
I got in a discussion with my 80-year-old cousin this weekend about a national language. Vinnie is a self-proclaimed Republican, though he’s a registered Democrat where he lives so that he can vote in the primaries. He and his wife noted (strangely) that the two politicians they most abhor are Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush. Both, by their accounts, are idiots. While I only half agree with that statement, I was swept in the undertow of a political conversation, brought about by a veritable ocean of Scotch and Plum Rum Cordial (both home-made and delicious).
And while Vinnie continued to state that he refused to ruin an otherwise perfect weekend with a political debate, he also continued to pursue the conversation; the heart of which was the adoption of a national language.
“When your great-grandfather came to this country, they wanted to be American,” he fervently declared. While we’d dimmed the lights of the kitchen to appease his aging eyes, I still felt warm and my nose matched his reddish hue. “They came to this land to start over. And starting over meant learning a new culture, complete with its language. Sure they spoke Italian around the dinner table, but the second they left the front door, it was ‘Hello. How are you doing?‘.”
“I understand, that, Vinnie,” I tried, “but forcing people to adopt a new language goes against the fabric of America. We’re (or at least we were) the world’s open door. We don’t force people to adopt a religion, or vote, or protest or participate in the legal process in anyway, beyond jury duty, so why would we force people to speak our language?”
“It’s a sign of respect.”
Generally, Americans (such as myself) have rebelled against language legistlation. In 1780, John Adams proposed to setting up an official Language Academy to set standards for English. The notion was rejected by the Continental Congress as an improper role for government and a threat to individual liberties. Nearly a century later, Teddy Roosevet’s attempt to reform the language found a similar demise. In 1923, a bill was brought to Congress to make “American” our common voice, however it never came to a vote. For the most part, this bill was enacted as a way of insulting the Anglophiles of the nation (which, as you can probably guess, sat nicely for Irish-Americans).
Personally, my opinion is this: I believe in America. If someone asks me what I am, I generally say that I’m American (unless they press for heritage). I’m proud of my ancestors for choosing to learn English. While my father’s household grew up speaking a mixture of English and Italian, and my mother’s household spoke English and French, my parents thought it best to make English my primary language. At various points in my life, I’ve studied English, French, Italian, German and Spanish, but I’m only fluent in English. I believe that if you want to succeed in business in the Western World, you need to know how to speak English properly.
In creating a national language, however, we’re infringing on Americans’ individual liberties and forcing them to abandon a culture that may already be in jeopardy with global economy. I also think that when people are forced to do something that they may otherwise do by natural freewill, they choose to rebel. All the pride that I hold for my ancestors in retraining their tongues and minds solely because of their love for this country would be in question.
This isn’t to say that I enjoy waiting on-hold for customer service to get though a number of language options. It doesn’t thrill me to hear co-workers whispering in german a cubicle away. But I think about the strangle-hold that the government currently has on our freedoms (read: The Patriot Act, The Department of Homeland Security, the impending Net-Neutrality bill, etc.), and there’s no way that I’d accept this as an alternative.
I love my cousin. So when I successfully changed the topic on my fifth try, I stifled my innate drive to be heard and asked for another glass of scotch. Obviously, a lack of humility got the best of me as I’ve decided to continue this conversation online. But I firmly believe in giving the poor, the tired, the huddled masses the opportunity to speak free.
What do you think? Should American have a national language? Do you think forcing people to speak English is a threat to our individual liberties? Do you think immigrants or non-English-speakers would be more or less likely to adopt a second language if their new land forced them?