Sunday, May 21, 2006


U.S. lawmakers have renewed an old debate over whether to make English the nation's official language. On Friday, the Senate passed two measures, one declaring English the nation's official language and the other its "common and unifying" tongue.

Interestingly, the White House initially voiced support for both measures. White House officials later waffled, trying to draw a distinction between an "official" language and a "national" language, the latter of which the President is said to endorse. If you're confused, you're not alone.

The proposal declaring English as the national language requires immigrants seeking citizenship to demonstrate a “sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in everyday life.” Sounds reasonable, right? Apparently most people agree. In an MSNBC online poll, 67% of respondents favored recognizing English as the national language of the U.S.

The idea is to promote assimilation and unity.

Legislation declaring English as a "common and unifying" language would accomplish nothing, other than stating the obvious. It's simply a feel good measure. Everyone already knows that English is the common language of the U.S. And if it's also unifying, then why not make it official? How can anyone argue against unity?

Some 158 nations have included a specific measure in their constitutions proclaiming one or more national languages. The United States is one of the relatively few without such a measure.

Canadian lawmakers have struggled to placate a divided nation by promoting bilingualism. Everything from cereal boxes to highway signs are written in both French and English. Except, that is, in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, where English has been eliminated as the officially sanctioned language.

Culture is not only a unique part of a nation's identity, but an invaluable one as well. Culture has a unifying quality that pulls people together, giving them binding commonalities and collective characteristics. In countries around the world where citizens lack a common culture, there is often tremendous strife, as evidenced in the Balkans, regions of the African continent, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East, to name a few. In the places where people have been able to identify, and in some cases exploit, their obvious differences, deadly consequences have often ensued. National customs, values and mores are all important aspects of culture, as is language.

In just the last decade alone, our northerly neighbor, Canada, has managed to survive intact despite repeated attempts by residents of Quebec to secede. The reason? They believe, rightly so, that their culture is distinctly different than that of the rest of their countrymen. Quebec is the French-speaking province of Canada, with a uniquely French flavor and flair. The competing languages of Canada, English and French, have long caused national dissension and discord.

When President Bush visited Canada for talks with then Prime Minister Paul Martin, every statement the two leaders made, the subsequent questions from reporters of both nations, and the leaders' responses to those questions, had to be recited in both English and French. This wasn't for the benefit of the citizens of both nations, but for the people of Canada alone. The process not only made the press conference long-winded and exhausting, but it also pointed out the division and lack of national unity in Canada.

The U.S. has never formally made English its official language, but that time has come. While Americans should be encouraged to be bilingual, or even multi-lingual, since that ability is so vital to business and trade, having to cow-tow to immigrants who've refused to be come Americanized is going too far. There are people who have lived in America for more than a generation who refuse to learn and speak English, and who are determined to maintain communities that represent their motherlands, more than America itself. In these communities English isn't even a second language. This is divisive and non-productive. The more things we have in common in America, the greater our unity. A common language is fundamental and critical to that end.

While multi-cultural elements such as food and the arts make America unique and diverse, the ability and willingness for all Americans to speak English and share a larger cultural identity is essential to our long-term success and health a nation. We need look no further than to our northern neighbor for a prime example of the consequences of not doing so.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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