Why I’m glad that we don’t have an official language

One thing that I’m glad about, as an American citizen, is that we don’t have an “official” language.

This country, from long before the end of British rule in 1781, has attracted one of the most extreme varieties of peoples from all over the world. Despite the rise of xenophobic and/or racist movements from the descendants of immigrants, despite the fears and electoral stump speeches about the Irish, the Jewish, the Asian, the Central- and South American and the Middle Eastern menaces who “threatened” to “change our culture”, each one of these groups manifested enough interest in integrating into our society, and many of their descendants came to demand more for their lives than what was offered to their forebears.

We integrated, and continue to integrate, those who integrate into our society, and those who may leave this country for other shores are not left without the influence of the American experience.

So what helped us integrate so many people?

  • First, our separation of religion and state, and non-establishment of a state religion.
  • Second, our non-establishment of a state language.

If the signatories to the 1787 Constitution had privileged English as the official language of the United States, I think that our experience with immigrants would have been made worse than what the current historical record shows. It would establish English-speakers as a more politically-privileged class of people over those who don’t speak English, only certifying and empowering the prevalent bigoted attitudes against fellow human beings simply by way of linguistic history, and no doubt antagonizing those who lived in territories formerly colonized by Spain or France, or those who were indigenous to the land and spoke languages prior to interaction with European settlers (i.e. the former Kingdom of Hawai’i).

I also look at the experience of Canada, which has integrated almost as wide of a variety of human beings from all inhabited continents from the moment of European colonization as our country. In Canada, English and French are established as the state languages, and politicians and civil servants are expected to learn both languages in order to hold their jobs. Despite the integration of French as a first-class language in Canadian federal politics, Quebec separatism still runs strong as a political force among those who feel that the minority-status French language is not treated with equal dignity in the Canadian public. This sentiment jeopardizes the relationship of minorities who are not English- or French-speaking nor entirely aligned with either linguistic structure, including Canadian people of color, with Canadian identity.

This is why I would rather that no language would be declared “official” in this country. Once we begin to pick a state language, or a state religion, or a state socio-economic ideology, we begin to ostracize those who don’t fit so neatly within the categories set by such state favoritisms. We begin to favor the stronger over the weaker, some over others, when we would gain more from negotiating with such parties at some point in their integration.

And I say all this from my own favoritism to English. It is more adaptable and assimilative of any “foreign” word than most other languages known to the human species, very much like a creole or a pidgin language. That makes it a highly-useful language in trade, education and diplomacy.

I would rather that English, as a language, defend itself on its own merits in the marketplace of languages. The state, in my opinion, does a greater service in integrating our society beyond our languages, our religions or the ways in which we think.

E pluribus unum.

No immigrant, no matter whether they’re from Mexico or Lebanon or China, threatens this creed. We only threaten it when we loose sight of this creed and all that it entails.

An “official” language, like a state-favored religion, threatens this creed. Let’s maintain this “separation of language and state”, a key tool in the stirring of this “melting pot”.

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