Official Language

I’ve resisted the idea of English being the official language of the United States in the past. While it’s certainly the dominant language, this is a nation of immigrants and people bring their cultures with them here. Part of those cultures include their languages. We aren’t Englishmen anymore; we are our own nation and we can decide for ourselves what languages we want to speak. That said, I am fluent only in English and I do not have enough Spanish to do more than fumble my way through basic situations like asking for directions or ordering food in a restaurant; I have a bit of very stale high school French, which was enough to cause Parisians to look at me with a mixture of contempt and sadness before volunteering “I have English, can I help you?”

I’ve a stronger command of Italian, from some study as an adult and experience traveling to Italy to visit and interact with family there. Of course, there isn’t much demand for Italian in the U.S., but I can borrow from Italian when talking with a Spanish speaker and that seems to work out pretty well most of the time. But you can’t live in California for long without encountering not only Spanish but also Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Tagalog, and a variety of other languages, and you just have to learn to deal with it.

I also notice that I am in a distinct minority regarding the English-as-official-language issue. Most (English-speaking) Americans seem to feel quite strongly that we need an official language and that it might as well be the dominant language that most Americans speak. So there are official language laws in most states, including California. I am under explicit instructions when I sit as a pro tem judge to only conduct the proceedings in English, even if I know enough of the other language to communicate with litigants in a different tongue. (I’ve seen “real” judges break this rule all the time, particularly with Spanish.) So that’s the law, and I have to accept that even if I would prefer the law be other than it is.

So it’s delicious for me to see this story about Italian — the non-English language I know best — finally becoming, in 2006, the official language of Italy. Like the U.S., Italy is contending with issues arising out of immigration from other countries; Turks, Poles, Russians, Arabs, and other groups are coming to Italy to seek their fortunes and this displeases some Italians while others like it fine. Like the U.S., there is a very dominant language but many dialects, some so extreme they seem like languages unto themselves. (Sicilians and Venetians can barely understand one another.) And like the U.S., there are other languages spoken within Italy’s political boundaries as a matter of tradition even without the influence of recent immigration; French is the dominant language in the Val d’Aosta and German is spoken in some other Alpine regions of the north, and Croatian is seeping in to the area around Trieste.

So the Italians seem to have found the same sort of solution to the same sorts of perceived social problems arising from a multiplicity of languages as most U.S. states. I still say that language is an easily-solved problem and it is sometimes a rather transparent tissue for xenophobia, whether it’s in the U.S., Italy, or elsewhere. It’s good to learn other languages and be able to speak with others on terms you’re not 100% comfortable with; it keeps balance and perspective. But people do have to communicate, too, and this seems to be the way that the issue will be resolved, both here and elsewhere.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

One Comment

  1. This whole English as official languge issue is silly. We should have no official language, the market should decide.

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