Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, which is the home of ethnic diversity, has introduced the English Language Unity Act of 2011, a bill to make English the official language of the United States.
The House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing on the bill earlier this month. Why, you might wonder, with unemployment above 8 percent and America facing a fiscal cliff at the end of this year, are our well paid representatives in Congress flitting their time away on a bill that has virtually no chance to pass and wouldn’t make much difference if it did?
Apparently, Rep. King looked at the latest Gallup poll numbers and found that 16 percent of Americans still think Congress is doing a good job. Might as well spend down some of that political capital!
Seriously, why do so many people who believe that free markets are the answer to most economic and social problems somehow shrink from the idea that English can survive without government help in the marketplace of languages?
After all, English is the third-most commonly spoken native language in the world, and no other language has its reach and influence. English is used for legal and government purposes in 54 countries, plus the United Nations and the European Union.
English has a huge vocabulary, in large part because of the colonial and trade adventures of Great Britain, followed by the cultural, economic and military dominance of Britain’s upstart relatives in the United States.
Despite drawing heavily on French, African and Indian (both American Indian and otherwise) languages, basic English remains remarkably simple, with no genders, no adjective endings and only two grammatical cases to worry about. Yet for all its simplicity, English is rich enough to provide comfortable working room for both Shakespeare and Puff Daddy.
Granted, it’s impossible to spell in English (who could have guessed that “one” and “won” would be pronounced the same way?), but that’s what computers are for.
What other language could compete on the world stage? Functional literacy in Chinese requires learning thousands of characters. Russian has three genders and six cases to fret over, plus the Cyrillic alphabet. French is spoken by French people.
Even German, my second language of choice, has four cases, three genders and vigorously declined adjectives. Mark Twain famously said that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.
German also has an idiosyncratic word order in which a sentence constructed like this makes perfect sense: The bartender has me told that I no beer more drink should. Talk like that in English, and you had better lay off the sauce.
English can easily hold its own without government help. If the purpose of Rep. King’s bill is to save the cost of translating documents into other languages, then that purpose can be accomplished without resorting to official language folderol.
One way to measure the merit of a bill is to examine the exceptions required for it to make sense. Rep. King’s bill exempts foreign language instruction (your Spanish instructor could still speak Spanish in class), criminal defendants (even Rep. King acknowledges that people can’t receive fair trials in languages they don’t understand) and “terms of art or phrases” from other languages (it would still be OK to say “faux pas,” “Donner and Blitzen” and “Mississippi”).
Movements like this one also seem to snatch at the notion that learning a language is like turning an on-off switch. You either have it or you don’t. But learning a language is more like fitting new pieces every day into an infinite jigsaw puzzle.
I devoted several years of my own life to learning what German I know, including more than a year of six-hour-a-day classes, then living and working in Germany and reading thousands of pages of German poetry, magazines, newspapers and literature. In Rep. King’s world, I would be a model immigrant.
But still, after all of that, when it comes to complex issues that may determine how I vote, give me English. If I want to read, for example, a new report from the Tax Policy Center that says Mitt Romney can’t possibly come up with a revenue-neutral plan that contains big tax cuts for his rich pals without also raising taxes on the middle class, then I would prefer to wade into that in English, not German. Rep. King might have preferred that the report only be available in German.
But we all know that Rep. King isn’t worried about German. He’s worried about Spanish, an inoffensive and pleasant-sounding language spoken in countries that have taken repeated military beatings from English speakers, from the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the Battle of San Jacinto to the Mexican War and walkovers in the Falkland Islands and Grenada.
Why worry about Spanish? Perhaps that’s a question best left to Rep. King.
No matter what happens to his bill, I will continue to order an unofficial enchilada plate with a helping of unofficial tacos and unofficial arroz, guacamole and frijoles on the side.