The push to make English the official language of the U.S. misses the point. If proponents of such a constitutional amendment aim to prevent Balkanization and preserve the ideal of the melting pot, they would do far better to channel their efforts into radically changing bilingual education programs. Immigrants will learn English if the social engineers will only let them.
I know about bilingual education firsthand. When my family came to this country from Cuba via Spain more than 20 years ago, the New York City public school system, in its infinite wisdom, put me in a bilingual program, despite my family’s doubts. The program delayed my immersion into English, created an added wedge between new immigrants and other students, and was sometimes used as a dumping ground for troubled Spanish-speakers more fluent in English.
When I tried to transfer to a regular class, the system threw roadblocks in my way. Administrators finally relented, though it took a lot to convince them. The process was an education in itself, but it wasn’t one a 14-year-old should be asked to go through.
One year later, the students who had stayed in the bilingual class were still there, and their English-language skills were little improved. They were every bit as bright as I; it was the system that held them back. Sadly, this picture has not improved in the past two decades.
While a bilingual program of short duration that truly aims at quick immersion in the English-speaking culture would be of value, the lobbying groups that support bilingual education appear to have other aims in mind: chiefly, pushing the Spanish language as something in need of protection and creating a multicultural, multilingual nation.
Spanish is my native tongue, and it is the native tongue of every member of my family. I work hard at not losing it and speak it as often as I can, especially in the street. It is a beautiful, melodious tongue, especially suitable for poetry and other forms of literature. It is not a waif that needs the help of some concerned administrator. The language is alive and duly celebrated in Spain and 18 countries in Latin America, as well as in any other country where individuals have chosen to add it to the particular inventory of the foreign languages they know.
Paul Hill, research professor at the University of Washington’s graduate school of public policy, says one hidden agenda of bilingualism’s proponents may be to create demand for teachers who speak a foreign language. He also suggests a more Machiavellian agenda: Instilling in a child a self-consciousness as a member of a separate group virtually ensures that he or she will never fully feel a member of the larger society and will be more vulnerable to claims of ethnic pride, or resentment, by politicians and marketers alike. I fear Prof. Hill may be right on target.
As a correspondent, I have witnessed countries such as South Korea and Japan use unity of purpose to compete globally. I have also witnessed strife in countries that are multilingual and multicultural, such as Afghanistan and Cyprus. We should think twice before we toss out the corny goal of having a melting pot.
Yes, Americans, an English-speaking people, had better start learning foreign languages, such as Spanish, in order to better compete in the world. Yes, our diversity is a real strength: Americans of Eastern European, Asian and Latin American background are leading the charge in opening markets in those regions. But we cannot afford to become dissipated at the center — we have to understand one another, linguistically and culturally, back at the head office.
But if the liberals on one side confuse matters, the conservatives on the other side also send the wrong message with English-only drives. The first law that established English as the official language of a state, in Nebraska in the 1920s, restricted the learning of any other foreign language until secondary education. Any law that risks encouraging isolationism should be opposed. Globalism is real — anyone who doubts it should visit our business schools and see students grappling with how to overcome America’s natural seclusion. In addition, if it’s fair to speculate about the motives of bilingual-ed supporters, it is also legitimate to hypothesize that supporters of English-only may be animated by nativism, racism and ignorance.
Far from working toward union, making English an official language risks creating further divisions. It goes against the grain of how things have traditionally been done in this country, where there is no official religion nor family that represents the state. Reforming bilingual ed and restricting government literature to English does not require an official language. We’ve done without one for 219 years. We don’t need one now.
Mr. Gonzalez is a Wall Street Journal staff reporter in New York.