The Foreign-Language Threat

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 1, 2004

You’d think that the biggest threat facing this nation comes from Islamic terrorists.

Not according to some congressional representatives. They seem to think the biggest threat comes from linguistic terrorists.

At least that’s the impression you get after Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia introduced legislation last week to amend the Constitution to make English the official language. Mind you, Goode is not calling for a regulatory change in the U.S. Code, or for some sort of congressional declaration. No, he wants to change the very Constitution of the United States.

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Wiser heads than mine know that amending the Constitution is a momentous undertaking best reserved for truly important matters of state. So you’d better have a good reason: to abolish slavery, to give women the right to vote. Unless absolutely imperative, do not trifle with it.

Yet it is difficult to think of a reason less imperative and more trifling than making English official.

People all over the world, even our enemies, recognize that English is the globe’s most important language. It is ludicrous to think its supremacy is so threatened at home that a constitutional amendment is necessary to protect it.

Why do some people think English is under siege? One word: immigrants. In a lot of neighborhoods in a lot of cities, you can walk the streets and hardly hear a word of English. But that shouldn’t shock anyone. Those people speaking something other than English are immigrants.

It might be fashionable to claim that immigrants of the past were so eager to assimilate that they stopped speaking their native tongues as soon as they got off the boat, but the truth is that back then there were also plenty of neighborhoods where a visitor would barely hear English. The American-born children of those old immigrants learned English, and so do the American-born children of immigrants today.

According to the 2000 Census, 92 percent of America’s population age 5 and older speaks English “very well.” Among Spanish-speakers, the largest group of immigrants who speak another language, 70 percent know English either “well” or “very well.” The figure is almost exactly the same for speakers of Asian languages, the second-largest group.

The census has not broken down English proficiency by length of residence, but it is a sure bet that the vast majority of that 30 percent who do not know English at least “well” are older adults who have not lived here very long. The young do much better. Only 1.3 percent of kids 5-17 years old speak English less than well.

And that is where the linguistic future is heading. Toward knowing English.

Goode’s proposed constitutional amendment isn’t the only official-English legislation kicking around Congress. At least two other bills aim to do the same, short of changing the Constitution.

None is necessary. English is so dominant, it needs no defending. It is immigrants who need to be defended from language guardians frightened by a menace that does not exist.

Cuban-born Roger Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

(c) 2004 King Features Synd., Inc.