Posts Tagged ‘Menominee Tribe’

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Political Monday: Do We Need A National Language?

April 23, 2012

Depending on the source you use, the number of countries with an official language varies.  The number is high and sits around 146 out of 196 countries[i].  That works out to about 74% of all countries in the world claiming at least one official language.  The United States is not one of them.

While many arguments are made regarding an official language, both for and against the idea, most end up being political and leave the legitimate arguments behind.  Regardless of your position, by understanding the issues surrounding an official language, you will be better prepared to make up your own mind without the stupid political rhetoric bogging you down.

First, we must accept there is a de facto official language in use – Americanized English.  While many other languages exist in our daily lives, Americanized English (English) is overwhelmingly our primary language.  About 1.5% of people in the United States speak no English at all[ii] and almost all are first-generation immigrants.  Virtually all second-generation immigrants have, at least, a working knowledge of English.  Given its dominance, English is, in effect, our un-official national language.

So, why not just make English our official language?  As with most issues surrounding a group of 300 million-plus people, answers are not as straightforward as the question implies.  While it is easy to stamp a language as “official,” doing so may have unintended consequences.  For instance, what about our indigenous people, how do we consider their native languages in this debate?  For those of us that only speak English, we may not see the cultural significance of such a matter, and it does matter.  Recently, a young member of the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin was benched from the school basketball team for speaking her native language earlier in the day to a classmate[iii].  It is hard enough today for Native-American Tribes to hold on to their cultural heritage, if we put an official language in place, we must ensure we do not further trample Native-Americans in the process.

Had we, as a nation, been successful in our attempt to suppress Native-American language[iv], it would have negatively affected our war efforts in World War II.  We would not have had

Codetalker in WWII
(click on image to visit site)

the famous Navaho Codetalkers[v] .  Accepting, for the sake of argument, the suppression had the best of intentions, it remains a blatant example of how we are diminished if we do not honor the cultural differences within our boarders.  All citizens can take pride by having four-hundred bilingual Navaho-Americans in World War II.  Those same four-hundred Navaho-Americans have pride is providing their nations (the Navaho Nations and the United States) with service that saved thousands of lives.

About one-hundred years has passed since we attempted to educate away Native-American language and it seems today some of our educators are hell-bent on continuing the practice.  We cannot forget they are part of us.  It is not any “us against them” situation.  We need to honor their choice to preserve their cultural language.  Doing so enriches us, as a whole, along

Carlisle School Pupils (c 1900)

with our Native-American siblings.

Not having an official language has its downside too.  Part of being a nation is having a sense of oneness.  A common language is a primary means to reach that oneness.  Moreover, it simplifies communication and understanding.  It is all too easy to classify anyone promoting an official language for the United States as being racist.  Surely, there are those out there that see it with bigotry, but it is wrong to lump everyone in that category.  Even without English being our official language, knowing it provides benefits, including employment opportunities, education, and social connectivity, to name a few.  Without a basic knowledge of English, immigrants are limited to menial labor and advancement is severely impacted in a negative way.

Several years ago, I worked in an industry that had a high percentage of non-English speaking employees.  It presented management with a real problem in terms of quality, productivity, and worker-safety.  In a meeting to find a solution, it was proposed we train our managers to speak Spanish, as most of the workers in question did.  It seemed like a good solution until one of our senior managers, who just happened to be Hispanic, pointed out our flaw in thinking that way.  As he put it, “if you have a manager that has fifty Hispanic employees working for him and he leaves, you now cannot communicate with fifty employees until you find another Spanish-speaking manager.  It is better to train the fifty employees to speak English, if one leaves it does not have near the same impact.”  He further went on to explain it helps the immigrant employee feel connected to their new home.  It helps them become part of our national identity, and not just a visitor.

As a company, we found we could use it as a benefit to our employees.  Something we ultimately did.  It decreased employee turnover, increased productivity and reduced OSHA related injuries.  The cost of educating employees was more than offset in the savings and increased profits the company enjoyed.  In the end, it was a true win-win situation.

The point is, there are benefits for immigrants learning to speak the language of the country they live in.  It does not have to be draconian in nature or repressive of culture.  In fact, as the Codetalker incident illustrates, we benefit from bilingual citizens and our citizens benefit from having a national identity.

The trick is how to establish a national language and honor cultural differences.  This is where the debate should be.  Let’s forget all the rhetoric and do something useful for the United States.  We must remember, no one of us is as smart as all of us.  Therefore, we must engage opinions that differ from our own to find the best solution to a problem.  We have a tendency to take ownership of ideas and this means we get defensive when we see them being attacked.  A better way to think about it is to take partnership in the solution.  Then the best points from all ideas can form the best solution possible.

The idea of an official language for the United States is not an earth-shattering topic.  If we do or do not pick one the fabric of our daily lives will not change.  This makes it a perfect topic to engage others of differing views and set our petty political personas aside.  Perhaps by taking a small step with a subject like this, we can learn to do the same on issues that really will shake the world.


[i] Wolframalpha. Wolframalpha LLC. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=number+of+countries+with+an+official+language>.

[ii] Shin, Hyon B. and Robert A. Kominski. 2010. Language Use in the United States: 2007, American Community Survey Reports, ACS-12. U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC. Web,  23 Apr 2012.
<http://www.census.gov/prod/2010pubs/acs-12.pdf>

[iii] ICTMN Staff.  “Student Suspended for Speaking Native American Language.”  Indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com. Indian Country Today Media Network, LLC, 7 Feb. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.  <http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2012/02/07/student-suspended-for-speaking-native-american-language-96340>.

[iv] “Native American Boarding Schools.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_boarding_schools>.

[v] “The Code Talker Story.” Official Site of the Navajo Code Talkers. Navajo Code Talkers Foundation. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://www.navajocodetalkers.org/code_talker_story/>.

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