September 1, 2011

America’s De Facto Foreign Language

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In 1787, the people of the United States created a Constitution in order to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty …” Little did they imagine, however, that one of the biggest challenges to the new document was not related to any of these objectives, but rather the meaning of “we the people.” Throughout U.S. history, the answer to the question ‘who is an American?’ has changed. The Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and mass immigration are among the events that have drastically altered de facto and de jure properties related to the American population.

For instance, the Hispanic population in the United States — which refers to persons who trace their origin to Spanish-speaking cultures — has grown from less than 0.5 percent of the nation’s population reported in the 1900 Census, to 16.3 percent in 2010. The significant growth, largely attributed to the less-restrictive policies on immigration Congress passed in 1965, has made Hispanics the largest minority group in the country. This demographic alteration in American society has brought with it several effects. As typical in most inclusive democracies, population numbers are directly proportional to political power. For this reason, it is not surprising to see that an increase in power has provided Hispanics with opportunities to expand their rights and privileges as American citizens. Among these opportunities, the wave of support to officially declare Spanish as the United States’ second national language outshines many others.

This Wednesday, Frank Gómez  — a former foreign service officer and current member of the North American Academy of the Spanish Language — criticized a study about Hispanic media in the U.S. because it labeled  Spanish as a “foreign language.” Gómez argues that Spanish “is not ‘foreign’ because it is part of American society — omnipresent, palpable, visible and felt daily in countless ways.” As radical as this may seem,  it would be ignorant to claim that Gómez’s views do not have any factual foundation. For instance, the Spanish-speaking population in the United States — about 12 percent of the total population — is the fifth largest in the world. The only countries that exceed the United States’ concentration of Spanish speakers are Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Spain. Additionally, even though English is the  de facto language of our private and public sectors, “corporations use Spanish outside the boardroom, courts provide Spanish language interpretation and the General Services Administration [utilizes resources in promoting the use of Spanish in federal agencies].”

However, although these realities seem to strengthen Gómez’s case, the truth is that his argument fails to convince that Spanish is indeed “our ‘second language.’” First, the fact that Spanish is involved daily in many aspects of American society does not guarantee that it is not an alien language anymore. This is just like arguing that if a prosthesis has become omnipresent in a person’s life, then the prosthesis is not foreign to that individual’s body. Although it is true that, contrary to human anatomy, a society is capable of fluid change, it is truer that this is yet to be the case for Spanish in the United States. As mentioned before, Spanish began its notable expansion in America after 1965. English, on the other hand, has taken a central role in the United States’ history since the 17th century. Forty-six years of development compared to four centuries of tradition. To me, it is pretty clear that Spanish still has a long road to travel before it is worthy of being considered, along with English, a national language.

Second, even as a member of the Hispanic community, I think recognizing Spanish as the United States’ second national language is both likely unattainable and undesirable — even if it is eventually not considered  alien to American society. The United States — at the federal level — does not even have an official national language. If campaigns like the “English-only” movement have failed to make the language  — which is spoken by 83 percent of the population — the de jure official language of the United States, then it is very sensible to expect a minority language such as Spanish to fail as well.

Additionally, our constitutional values seem to go against the idea of making Spanish a second national language. Since our nation’s inception, there has been a strong focus on unification rather than on separation. Our founding fathers decided to sacrifice a significant level of autonomy at the state level in order to create “a more perfect union.” By making Spanish an official language, the government would be institutionalizing a cultural “disunion” that will harm the “American nationality” that Teddy Roosevelt thought so important for the political, social and economic development of the United States. The fact is that this decision has nothing to do with embracing diversity. America has always been the land of opportunity for people around the globe, regardless of religion, race or culture. This is really about what is the best for the United States as a whole. And pragmatism tells us that in order to comply with this purpose, it is essential — while respecting individual liberties — to have an universal binder that will unite us all as “we the people.” English, which has always been part of the American identity, can offer us just that. Spanish, on the other hand, cannot.

Abdiel Ortiz-Carrasquillo is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at aortiz@cornellsun.com. I Respectfully Dissent appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: AJ Ortiz