• by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • January 1996 • Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.

Conversation on the Internet about declaring English as the official language of the United States reflects a wide variety of concerns and points of view. People use newsgroups on the Internet to anonymously discuss common topics of interest. Below are some of the comments I recently came across in such a newsgroup.

“[Declaring English as the official language] would be a step in the right direction: having people appreciate their language and speaking it correctly. Working at a university as I do, it pains me to hear undergraduates speaking in half-sentences, phrases that don’t make sense, and that indispensable word ‘like’.”

“Would making English the official language cause more people to learn the common language of the country among others?”

“It’s not often that legislation sparks hope in teachers and professors to improve language use…and yet the reason for bilingual education is just that! The goals of bilingual education always have been the learning of English.”

“I have come into the middle of this discussion on English…As a graduate student, I am surprised by the number of mistakes we make when composing sentences [sic]. Moreover, I am awestruck at the lack of verbal skills we exhibit when presenting to groups or speaking with neighbors. As a police officer I am embarrassed at the quality of documents we produce as ‘official records.’ As a citizen and full-time observer of human behavior, I am entertained by the methods and manner people employ to devastate the English language, both written and oral. I am very curious what form of English would become the ‘official’ form. Would it be from the North, Midwest, Southern California, Miami, New England? Would it be the Howard Stern version?”

“To aid in continuance of this thread, will the originator [of the newsgroup] please offer a definition of ‘official language’ with the mandated and prohibited usages envisioned? It seems to be a thought-provoking topic for educators to consider.”

“Well of course it will be the New England version. We have rights of primogeniture!”

“Yes, we can all get along. The logical selection for an official language would include that spoken language, and written, which the users and listeners would have the least difficulty in comprehending. Therefore, my suggestion would be the language spoken by the majority of newscasters. That particular dialect seems to be somewhere between the Midwest and Upstate New York vernacular. The upstate version would illustrate the adulterated ‘a’ sounds, commonly known as an ‘apple knocker’ in this area. The Midwest might have some terms such as ‘pop’ for a soft drink, whereas we might think of someone’s elder. Perhaps Walter Cronkite could assist this discussion. Back to you at the desk, Ted.”

“[I] don’t care if English is ‘official’ or not, [but] just the ramifications and hidden agenda of it all. Elite isolationism in the form of smoke screens and magic shows juggled by ethnocentric provincials.”

“Whoa! Might it be a slight over generalization to claim that everyone who thinks it might be advisable to have English as our official language is an ethnocentric provincial? There are certainly those on the side of English as the official language who have a hidden agenda or are highly threatened by the continuing trends in our country toward multicultural diversity. But to so label everyone does not respect some of the genuine concerns to be found in the discussion. Such as, how cohesive can a country be when many do not speak the language, or, would making English the official language cause more people to learn the common language of the country, among others. Perhaps these folks need more information, not labeling.”

“Sorry… [I] wasn’t exactly replying to the list of making generalizations here. To be clearer, I was replying to the attitude of some people typified by Robert Dole and Newt Gingrich, to whom I think it does apply.”

“The vast majority of non-English speakers in this country want to speak English. They would certainly appreciate greater opportunities to learn the language. The economic and social pressures already present are far more powerful than any legislated demand that English be spoken. Cohesiveness comes from justice, economic self-sufficiency peace and compassion. Communication requires more than a common vocabulary and comprehensible input. We are torn apart by bigotry, misunderstanding, lack of compassion and hate. No amount of English instruction will make us a more cohesive nation if injustice and inequity still prevail.”

“I have not been party to a great deal of this current debate, and this may be a bit off the mark, but I think worthwhile mentioning anyway. Coming from South Africa as I do, I am naturally painfully aware of the terrible misunderstandings that can result from an inability to appreciate where a person from a different culture is coming from. From my observations in 1990 at a summer school for business school teachers in France, it became very clear to me that the most tolerant peoples (as a broad generalization) were those who were multilingual. In general, the [U.S.] Americans and the British were the least tolerant and the least knowledgeable about other people and the way they go about things. I put it down to ‘unilingualism:’ a native English speaker is not obliged to learn anyone else’s language, because English is such a dominant language in the world. A cultural arrogance develops which regards people who can’t speak English well as stupid and inferior. This is a great disadvantage to unilingual English speakers, as they miss out on an enormous richness and diversity. The ability to communicate, even if basically, in another person’s language gives one a handle on what makes that person’s culture tick. The very use of the language immerses you in the metaphorical understandings that the other culture has as part and parcel of its reality. Those I envied the most were the Scandinavians, who were spectacularly multilingual – totally fluent in about six or seven (European) languages. Is this perhaps why Scandinavia took such a leading role in fighting apartheid in the old South Africa? I would suggest so.”

The debate on the Internet continues. This written dialogue allows for interesting documentation of what those who have access to the Internet are thinking. It has quicker response time than correspondence and letters to the editor, but allows for more reflection than an oral interaction.

Much of the discussion reflects frustration, confusion, fright and other forms of painful emotion. In some conversations, not printed here, there is outright bigotry and hate. On some chatlines, there are virulent attacks paralleling the talk shows that pander to people’s darkest side and shadow self. Yet underneath even the most bigoted interactions there is a glimmer of a peaceful and loving human being who has been hurt, probably early in life and repeatedly, and who has not been able to get over that hurt. Economically uncertain times only augment the deepest fears and hurts.

Young children in school trying to learn English need to feel safe and capable of learning. Children are hurt when taught in harsh, incomprehensible ways. The debates by adults do not seem to be helping them, and are in fact pushing them into an unintelligible and harsh world to linguistically sink or swim. Little of the conversation seems to understand the plight of children who are trying to learn English in school. When these children are adults, they probably will not be on computers joining in angry debates. Their actions will be much more direct, much more bluntly painful to themselves and their community.

Aurelio M. Montemayor is a senior education associate and master trainer in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]