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Can English survive?

Posted Monday, March 23, 2009, at 9:54 AM

Since the U.S. has been multilingual for its entire history, the continuing flap about "press 1 for English" has left me wondering just what the problem is.

Why are so many people so upset about that? Google that phrase, and you'll find thousands upon thousands of entries, a goodly number of which are so bigoted they're not worth the virtual paper they're printed on.

I've been running my own little survey on this, and I've discovered that most places using voicemail don't require English speakers to do anything at all. It's those who speak Spanish who are asked to press an additional key.

But even in those few instances where English speakers have to do the "work" of pressing that additional key, it takes considerably less than a second and even less thought. Why would a person of normal intelligence allow that to make them so angry?

I think the problem isn't the language at all.

I think the real problem has two sources -- first, the advent of voicemail, and second, the need for computer help desks.

Until the early to mid-1980s, business telephones were answered by a secretary or a clerk who directed calls to the appropriate person or who listened to your problem and tried to solve it.

When voicemail became widely available, companies saw an opportunity to cut costs. Those clerical workers disappeared and were replaced by a machine that operates only on its own weird logic.

"Press 1," "press pound," "press star" -- all of these annoying instructions come from a faceless voice that doesn't respond to anything but electronic tones. Press the wrong button and you could easily wind up in an electronic hell from which you might never emerge -- at least not with your sanity.

By the time you got to speak to someone, you'd forgotten what your problem was.

And then, before we all recovered from the shock of voicemail, the first wave of computers landed on our desks at work and at home. When the computer didn't work and we needed help, we had to call someone.

Where, of course, we got into electronic hell again, and got caught up in the next big cost-cutting wave -overseas technical support. More often than not, once we successfully battled our way through the button-pressing, the person answering the phone (at last) was a person whose first language was not English.

No wonder some people got a little excited.

And by the time they settled down, they'd forgotten what their problem was. Again.

The U.S. is a multilingual country and has been so from the very beginning.

President Thomas Jefferson spoke several languages, including Latin and Greek.

President Martin Van Buren was the first president born after independence. His first language was not English, but Dutch.

President James K. Polk campaigned in English and German.

President Herbert Hoover spoke Mandarin Chinese.

Until 1879, official documents in California were required to be created in both English and Spanish.

The borders of the United States contain speakers of more than 300 languages, of which 140 are native.

English, along with German, Italian, Spanish and a host of others, is classed as an immigrant language.

We're clearly interested in our own language and many others, including some that are rarely, if ever, spoken in earnest.

Most colleges and universities require at least a few years of a foreign language for admission, if not for graduation.

Fifty languages are in the curriculum at Yale University, including Sanskrit, Old Norse, Tamil and Yiddish.

There are perhaps 6,000 people in the U.S. who speak Esperanto, an artificial language invented by Polish physician Ludwig L. Zamenhoff in 1887, in an attempt to regularize grammar and spelling so that speakers of every language could communicate in a common language that is easy to learn.

A hallmark of "The Lord of the Rings," the immensely popular fantasy trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, is the made-up language of Elvish. And then there's Klingon, a made-for-TV language.

The United States has never had an official language. From the very beginning, discourse in this country has been carried on in a variety of languages. There is no question that English is dominant, spoken by more than 95 percent of the people who live here, but it has never been the only language, not by a long shot.

Reach into your pocket and take out a coin or two -- pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters all display the phrase "E pluribus unum." It's Latin that translates to "Out of many, one.." It's been on our coins since 1873.

Particularly in larger cities, there have always been people who didn't speak English, and in some cases, large communities of non-English-speaking people. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago all have (or have had) areas where it isn't always necessary to speak English to communicate with a doctor, a dentist, emergency personnel, hospital workers, retail shop owners, bankers and others who speak your language.

And even in areas far from the coasts, fluency in English wasn't absolutely necessary until well into the 20th century. Two researchers, Miranda E. Wilkerson of Western Illinois University and Joseph Salmons of University of Wisconsin-Madison, writing in the scholarly journal "American Speech," found that German was not only spoken in large areas of Wisconsin, it was the common language in parts of Milwaukee as late as the 1920s and 1930s. Some German-language newspapers were printed as late as the 1940s.

Wilkerson and Salmon's research effectively busted the myth that early immigrants to the U.S. learned English quickly in order to "fit in" with their new country. Their findings point to the fact that it wasn't always necessary.

There are plenty of people living in Marshall whose great-grandparents or even their grandparents didn't speak English as a first language and not all of them are from south of the border.

I'm a person who regrets not speaking at least one other language. Although I studied Latin and French in high school and later took some Spanish classes, I am not conversant in anything but English. It's mostly laziness on my part, but also a lack of need. Nothing in my work life or my personal life required me to speak any other languages. I've begun to regret that.

Learning another language is, in my view, a positive thing. It exercises the brain. It expands cultural understanding. It bridges the gap between you and someone who doesn't speak your language. It puts you in a position to help someone learn English.

Now, you may be one of the majority who voted to make English the official state language -- in my opinion, a "solution" without a problem.

You may be one of the many who feel that Spanish is "taking over" in the United States. You may be concerned that it's "taking over Missouri," as I heard someone say recently.

I believe your worries are unfounded.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2006 American Community Survey, about 34.5 million people in the United States speak Spanish. The same survey says about 130,000 of those Spanish speakers live in Missouri, making up about 2.4 percent of the state's population.

Although the rate is rising, at current rates, the primacy of English is hardly in danger.

Even with 500 Spanish-language magazines and newspapers, the television channels Univision and Telemundo and multitudes of radio stations, the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants typically pick up English very rapidly, and by the time the third generation is born, English is the predominant language in the family. That's as true for Spanish as it is for any other language, and the way it has been for all of our history.

If any language is in danger, it's any language that isn't English.

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I grew up speaking English with a southern accent and met with ridicule in school. Once in New York I entered a neighborhood where the I couldn't read the signs, the newspapers or the store advertisements. I really felt that I was in a foreign country. I went into a Greek deli and tried to order a sandwich. I couldn't read the menu board. When I asked for help the attendant switched instantly from Greek to English. Needless to say that put me at ease and I enjoyed a great sandwich that I couldn't pronounce. In that section of New York I was definitely in the minority and yet I was treated with respect. I heard one language for several blocks and then another language further on. On one corner there was a police officer speaking with another person in a language that I didn't recognize. Here in the mid-west we have been limited by not having the experience of experiencing multiple cultures. The weirdest experience was trying to understand native New Yorkers {Brooklyn) speaking their language which just happened to be English.

-- Posted by John Q. on Fri, Mar 27, 2009, at 10:19 AM


-- Posted by SecretAgentMichaelScarn on Thu, Mar 26, 2009, at 3:15 PM

Scarn - Perhaps your needs would be better served by a Greek newspaper.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Thu, Mar 26, 2009, at 12:10 PM

γιατί θα ήτα' "ια ε''η'ι'ή ότι θέ'*υ'

-- Posted by Oklahoma Reader on Wed, Mar 25, 2009, at 6:13 PM

παρακαλώ ταχυδρομήστε αυτό το blog στα ισπανικά

-- Posted by SecretAgentMichaelScarn on Wed, Mar 25, 2009, at 5:46 PM

i don't know if any of you work in or with the public, i however do, and there is nothing more irritating than to spend 15 min. trying to figure out what somebody wants end up getting it wrong and then being cussed out in perfect english as they walk out the door. if they (whoever) don'twish to conform to one language english in this case because we're not in mexico,china,or france etc. they need to go back home to fit in...period

-- Posted by midniterebel on Wed, Mar 25, 2009, at 7:40 AM


I think most if not all of what you say is correct.

I know I hate to call any and not get to talk to a human like in the old days.

One of the things I dislike the most about people not talking in a language that most people can understand is not knowing what they are saying.

I worked in retail up until a year ago and on more than once I had someone ask for help and I could not help them.

Also once there was 2 male's talking in the check out lane I was working behind the young lady I was checking out and all the sudden her face turned bright red and she turned to them and said a few words in their language both young men turned and went to another lane.

I asked the young lady what they had said and all she would tell me was it was very nasty.

Myself I think everyone in any country that they do not know the common language should make it a priorty to learn to speak the language common to said country.

-- Posted by Gal66 on Tue, Mar 24, 2009, at 11:20 AM

Spanish isn't actually a foreign language in the U.S. -- or rather, it's no more foreign than English. English is merely dominant, not native. Spanish preceded English as an imported language and has been spoken here the whole time Europeans have been in on this continent.

What upsets people, I think, is the sense that they have no influence over language prevalence. People who come to the U.S. expect to have to learn English -- enough to get by, anyway. But people who grew up trusting that English would always be dominant probably feel change is being imposed upon them. And it is, really, so resentment is understandable.

-- Posted by Eric Crump on Tue, Mar 24, 2009, at 9:47 AM

Very well said, Kathy. I really enjoyed reading your blog!!

-- Posted by jl32320 on Mon, Mar 23, 2009, at 9:49 PM

It's called respect, if I were to go to any other country I wouldn't expect them to change everthing to accomadate me. Nothing irritates me more then going to a store, hospital, etc and I ( an American Citizen, born and raised) have to figure out what they are trying to say as if I were in a foreign country, it really ticks me off when I do press "1" for english and I get some foreigner that is making an attempt to speak english but has such a strong accent I can't understand them and have to call back and press "1" again and hope to have an actual english speaking person pick up to help this enlish speaking American. Don't get me wrong, I wished I could speak Spanish, there are times it would have come in handy, but it's getting to the point that it's mandatory...mandatory to speak a foreign language in your own country. How sad.

-- Posted by MBGAL on Mon, Mar 23, 2009, at 8:31 PM

I agree that this issue actually has little to do with the English language itself. I think the language controversy is, in truth, used to cover for a much less politically correct concern that many Americans secretly harbor. I believe many people consider English to be a "white" language, and many white Americans (of all European backgrounds) consider multilingualism to be a direct threat to the white hegemony that has dominated the United States for the last few hundred years.

By acknowledging the validity of languages other than English as "American", the speakers of these "other" languages suddenly have an open invitation to become involved in American politics and culture in a way that was not available before. Minority groups that, because of a lack of language comprehension, have been marginalized and disenfranchised in the past are now quickly becoming mainstream, and there are many sectors of society who are very threatened by these changes.

As you point out, English is in no danger of extinction. Besides, where was our concern for "American" languages when nearly 80 Native American languages were going extinct? Now THERE is something to be concerned (and ashamed) of.

-- Posted by imaloony on Mon, Mar 23, 2009, at 11:44 AM

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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.
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