"To Continue in English, Press one. Para espa??ol, oprima el numero dos". A typical recording one hears upon calling a government agency or major company in the US, offering a choice of English and Spanish. Services in two languages suggests the US is a bilingual country, angering many who believe English is the nation's language. At the same time it suggests that other languages used in the US do not matter.
The US linguistic landscape has always been diverse although English has been the dominant language. Yet, concerns that other languages pose a challenge to English go back to the foundation of the country. During revolutionary times, animosity toward the British was so strong, that German was briefly considered as an alternative to English. Ben Franklin allegedly feared that the the overwhelming presence of German immigrants in Pennsylvania would force the rest of the people in the state to learn German.
A similar fear exists today because of the significant figure of foreign languages present in the US. Census figure tell us that twenty-one percent of American households speak a foreign language at home. Outside of their home these people will speak English with varying degrees of fluency.
Spanish is of course the more widespread foreign language and the most visible "competitor" to English. The US has nearly 41 million Spanish speakers. This would make it one of the largest Spanish-speaking countries in the world. Yet, twenty-two million of these Spanish speakers are bilingual and can speak English "very well" while only 16 million stated that they don't speak English "very well."
The large numbers of Spanish-speakers in the US may give the impression that one can do everything without learning English. Indeed, it's possible to live in the US with just Spanish but success depends on knowing English. In fact, you cannot become a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, without English. English is the key to success. Three of the candidates for the Republican nomination speak Spanish but their success depends on their knowledge of the English language.
Offering services in languages other than English ironically helps immigrants learn the common language and integrate into the American fabric. Giving driver's licenses tests in Spanish and other languages helps immigrants because they'll be able to get to work and attend school more easily. By having access to government services, immigrants don't remain isolated in their linguistic and social ghetto. They interact with Americans and integrate faster in our culture. And that speeds up their learning English. Of course, companies offering services in languages other than English do so to maximize their profits. However, even this will tend to accelerate rather than slow the integration process.
Regardless of how many services and opportunities immigrants have, learning English is still a daunting challenge. Immigrants who come to the States as adults with little education struggle with the new language. Even those who succeed will often show traces of the challenge as they will retain a foreign accent. Sofia Vergara, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arianna Huffington, and Henry Kissinger will bring their accent to their grave.
Immigrants' children will of course learn English as natives and some of them may also learn the parents' language and become bilingual. Their dominant language, though, will be English, the language in which they receive their education.
After a generation, though, the parents' language becomes faint and will disappear. In the case of Spanish, the bilingualism may last longer because of their high numbers and the fact knowing these two languages can become a definite asset. It's a plus because bilingual individuals can earn two to five thousand dollars a year more than monolingual individuals, according to a study by UCLA researchers. In another study conducted at UC San Diego it was discovered that bilingualism helps ward off the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
Time to learn Spanish or another foreign language?
Domenico Maceri is a free lance writer living in San Luis Obispo. Some of his articles have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications. Email the author