Is it Time to be a Bilingual Nation?

The Myths and the New Reality

When you hear "Press 1 for English" on a phone recording, does it annoy you? Shouldn't today's immigrants have to deal with English as immigrants before them did? And hasn't a common language been one of the key factors in keeping our great country united?

Yes, I do believe that every American citizen should speak English. And I believe having a common language does unite us. But I've come to believe that the rising use of Spanish and other languages in the United States is actually a good thing for our nation.

Many of our attitudes about language seem to have stopped evolving with the Eisenhower Administration. Yet we are not the America we were in 1950. In order to lead globally in the 21st century, we need to set a new course. America and Americans should become bilingual -- and aggressively so. Instead of being the least bilingual of citizens, we Americans should set our sights on becoming the most.

When you think about it, isn't it our rightful place as the nation of immigrants to be the most bilingual of nations? What's more, we can do it, if we set our minds to it, in less than a generation.

First we need to blast away two myths about language.

Myth: English is in jeopardy

English is in no danger of losing it's status as the official, dominant and at times domineering language in the United States. Indeed, it has become the dominant -- and at times domineering -- language of the world.

As nearly anyone who has traveled outside of the United States can testify, English has become something close to the world's tongue -- and the acceleration of this trend is particularly evident in the last 25 years.

We can thank the British Empire for getting the ball rolling, and then we can thank our own United States and its growing hegemony, in the years following World War II.

When the Berlin Wall fell, China turned on a dime and forced students to stop learning Russian and start learning English. (Today, it's estimated that there are more English speakers in China than in the United States.)

English is the international language of business, science, technology and education. As the official language of aviation, English is literally encircling the globe. Add to this the unrelenting American cultural tsunamis of Hollywood, television, MTV and perhaps most important, the Internet -- you have a planet awash in American English.

In Cambodia, a boy ran across his schoolyard calling to me in perfect English, "I know America, I know Washington, D.C.!" I'm sure he also knew Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jackson, Coke and Nike.
It was no surprise to be greeted in perfect English while doing business in India. I wasn't expecting it on factory trips in Thailand and Vietnam, however -- but that's just what I've encountered.

Rather suddenly, in historical terms, the world has it's long-dreamed-of lingua franca. English won the race, interestingly, despite being third in the number of native speakers, behind Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.

Myth: Stubborn immigrants think they don't have to learn English

How many thousands of immigrants have come to America over the years not speaking a word of English, only to have their names later etched in stone on our hospitals, bridges and libraries?

What would have happened in 1933 if we had told Albert Einstein not to come until he'd mastered English?

The idea that immigrants are huddled conspiratorially in Miami and El Paso and California sipping café con leche and vowing not to learn English is almost laughable -- except it's not funny. While there are exceptions, the vast majority of immigrants want to learn English, learn it fast and learn it well. Most immigrants are self-selecting entrepreneurs who have made sacrifices to come to America. The immigrants I know are aware -- sometimes painfully so -- that their livelihoods, and even their self-worth, depend on learning English.

I've seen this pain in the embarrassed expression of a Mexican gardener I've tutored in my hometown of Delray Beach, Florida. He told me he badly wants to learn English so he can stop being a landscape worker, where he speaks only Spanish with his coworkers and "get a job indoors."

I've seen the pain in the face of a migrant farm-working mother I've tutored at the Glades Family Literacy program in Belle Glade, Florida. She told me, with downcast eyes, "I want to help my daughter with the schoolwork."

I've seen the pain on the faces of people waiting their turn for a seat in the library's computer lab, where they can don a headset and hear a nonjudgmental computer pronounce the English they see on their screens.

And I've felt the pain preyed upon in ads on Spanish television selling expensive language courses, promising easy, fast English "without tears."

So when you hear "press 1 for English," don't think there are folks out there happily living in their Hispanic cocoon. They're just trying to make sure they don't mess up something important, like paying their utilities, or wiring money to their parents.

Miami: bilingual spoken here

The local joke here in South Florida is that if you want to travel to a foreign country, just drive to Miami. This is usually followed by some suggestion that an English speaker is out of place there. But that's not true. What's true is that Miami is loaded with bilinguals.

Once when I was visiting Santiago, I was speaking (in English) to a friend who was praising Santiago as the second capital of Latin American business. "What's the first?" I asked. She immediately answered "Miami." She explained that as a Latin American businessperson, you impress your friends when you visit Miami and have truly arrived when you buy a condo.

Is having Miami the unofficial capital of Latin America a good thing for the United States? Of course it is and it will be even better economically and politically when more native English-speaking Americans become fluent in Spanish.

In the next blog: How America can get her bilingual groove back.

But first -- how do you feel when you hear a second language spoken in the U.S.? And are you one of our bilingual speakers?